The Nationals have bucked the Morrison government’s proposed changes to university degrees, sparking an internal battle with the Liberals over the reforms.
The junior coalition partner is pushing back against plans to classify social work, mental health and behavioural science courses as humanities.
Under Education Minister Dan Tehan’s reforms, the cost of humanities degrees would more than double in a bid to steer students towards areas like maths and teaching.
Regional Education Minister and Nationals MP Andrews Gee is concerned the package could fuel inequality in the country.
“We believe this would only serve to further to increase the maldistribution of mental health workers in country Australia,” he said on Tuesday.
“It also has the potential to impact women and mature students looking to upskill and move into higher paid jobs.”
Mr Gee’s attack on the plan blindsided education bureaucrats, with top-ranking officials telling a Senate hearing Mr Gee failed to raise concerns with them.
Education Department secretary Michele Bruniges said she couldn’t remember a minister attacking reforms in his own portfolio through the media.
“I don’t recall an instance where I can think in my career where that’s occurred,” she told the hearing.
Despite being briefed six times about the universities package, the inquiry heard Mr Gee didn’t raise concerns with officials before launching the criticism.
But deputy secretary Rob Heferen later sought to clarify his statement, saying the minister did raise concerns but not with the same “intensity”.
Labor frontbencher Murray Watt said the public criticism was extraordinary.
“Couldn’t he pick up the phone an have a chat rather than putting this out to the world?” he said.
The Nationals will push for social work, mental health and behavioural science to be aligned with allied health courses.
The party also wants the government to ensure all students enrolled in a course before January next year won’t pay more.
The original proposal would have given students until the start of 2024 to finish or face higher fees.
Mr Gee said many part-time and online students in regional areas took more than three years to complete studies while balancing work and family commitments.
The junior minister also raised concerns the $5000 tertiary access payment would encourage country kids to leave to study in the city.
He said the payment should be targeted at country students.
Nationals MPs and senators will demand changes to the legislation before it is introduced to parliament.