THE University of Newcastle's staff and students unions have called on the Senate to block the federal government's proposed higher education reforms.
The government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill was read for the third time in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, meaning it will be sent to the Senate for consideration.
Labor and The Greens want it referred to a committee for an inquiry.
Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said on Wednesday the government had "behaved disgracefully".
"It's rammed the legislation through the Parliament, gagged debate and is now even refusing to allow a Senate inquiry to look at the bill," she said.
"If there's really nothing wrong with this legislation, why is the government so desperate to shut down any scrutiny?
"The government needs to stop stonewalling and allow an inquiry to shine a light on the consequences of this Bill on Australia's higher education sector."
She said in Parliament on Tuesday the bill was a "very obvious and shameful attack" by the government and young Australians.
"It rips $1 billion out of universities, right at a time when the sector is already on its knees," she said.
"It makes getting to university harder and more expensive for young Australians.
"It forces students to pay higher fees, on average, and thousands will miss out on a university education altogether because the Morrison Liberal government is failing to produce enough places."
The reforms include decreasing some course fees while increasing others, including doubling the cost of humanities degrees, plus removing HECS financial assistance for students who fail more than half of their first eight units.
Ms Claydon told Parliament she was concerned the University of Newcastle (UON) was being considered as metropolitan and would receive grant scheme funding increases of one per cent per year, instead of 3.5 per cent for regional campuses.
She said she was also concerned about uncertainty over ongoing funding for enabling programs.
"With close to 20 per cent of current University of Newcastle students undertaking an enabling course before commencing their undergraduate degree, any reduction in resources from these programs would impact severely on the university's ability to deliver on its equity mission for disadvantaged students," she said.
"At a time when we should be giving disadvantaged Australians every opportunity to get a quality education, support for these important programs should be bolstered not diminished."
The government said the reforms would fund an extra 39,000 places by 2023 and 100,000 by the end of the decade.
UON Vice Chancellor Professor Alex Zelinsky said its priority was "to support those people from our regions who need to access higher education through enabling programs".
"We are in active discussions with government and their representatives," he said.
"We are committed to advocating for our students to ensure any changes to policy will not result in their opportunities being diminished."
National Tertiary Education Union Newcastle branch vice president academic Dr Terrence Summers said the NTEU found the government's actions "extremely disappointing".
He said the bill was "simply unfair on many fronts" including cutting funding to science, maths and engineering "such that universities may need to consider whether to run these programs".
He said some humanities and arts students would find their doubled fees unaffordable.
"[The bill] reduces government funding overall, per domestic student, to universities at a time when universities need assistance," he said.
"They are shedding thousands of staff due to the combined influences of the COVID-19 crisis and already inadequate government funding.
"The bill will undoubtedly diminish universities' ability to conduct research at a time when Australia desperately needs to increase this capacity.
"This bill seems to be a pure cost cutting measure with no merit at all apart from saving money in the short term, to the long term detriment of the nation.
"The NTEU hopes that the Senate sees the folly of the bill and rejects it."
University of Newcastle Students Association (UNSA) president Luka Harrison said the group was "incredibly disappointed by the federal government's insistence on ramming" the "universally criticised" reforms through parliament.
He echoed concerns about the impact of raising fees and cutting funding, but said "the attack on HECS is arguably the greatest betrayal".
"HECS isn't perfect, but it is an equaliser that makes sure all Australians, regardless of socioeconomic status, can attend university," he said.
"The attack on HECS is an attack on equality and an attack on the working class.
"The Coalition government has shown time and again that it does not care about students, and this is just the latest in a series of betrayals.
"UNSA wholeheartedly condemns the Job-Ready Graduates package in its current form and urges the Senate to block it. Our sector is already in disarray and this is the last thing students need."
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