2017 Budget: Crossbench Holds Key to University Cuts

3 May 2017
The Australian, May 3, 2017

by Reporter Rosie Lewis & Higher Education Editor Julie Hare


The government will be forced to negotiate with Senate crossbenchers on key elements of its ­revamped higher education package, as Bill Shorten ramps up his attack on the Coalition and ­declares Labor is “very opposed” to university funding cuts.

Australia’s sandstone universities, known as the Group of Eight, warned senators they must consider if students could afford the changes and said they could cause “more damage” to the sector.

Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek yesterday left room to move on the reforms and said Labor was prepared to look at some elements of the package but would not support fee rises, funding cuts or measures that increased students’ debt.

Pledging to offer a “clean slate” following three years of uncertainty in the higher education sector, the government’s sweeping changes include a 2.5 per cent ­efficiency dividend on universities over two years, a significant lowering of the income threshold that triggers HELP debt repayments from $55,000 to $42,000, and fee rises of up to $3600 for a four-year degree.

A 7.5 per cent cut of each university’s Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding will also be made contingent on key performance benchmarks.

“How can Malcolm Turnbull be an innovation prime minister when he won’t be an education prime minister?” the Opposition Leader said from Townsville.

“Labor is very opposed to these cuts to university funding and making it harder for working-class kids to go to university.”

The bloc of Nick Xenophon Team senators and One Nation said they wanted a briefing from Education Minister Simon Birmingham and would consult with stakeholders before finalising ­positions.

“We need to look at the facts before making a decision, which I know is very unfashionable nowadays,” Senator Xenophon said. “Obviously an increase in the fees payable is of concern.”

Senator Xenophon’s colleague Stirling Griff called for a stronger focus on directing students ­towards education that would generate long-term careers.

Without the support of Labor or the Greens, the government will need to win over 10 of the 12 Senate crossbenchers for the package to become law.

Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said the Senate had a “heavy responsibility” when debating the budget package, which will remove $2.8 billion from higher education over the forward estimates through the efficiency dividend.

“The package tinkers at the margins with reform while removing $2.8bn out of our education and innovation future,” she said.

“It may look, superficially, as if it is only a haircut for universities and their students, but scratch ­beneath the surface and it is anything but.”

However, Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake said the overhaul was “disruptive but manageable”.

Independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie was the only crossbencher to announce she would not support the package, while Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm said the government had his vote.

“It’s intended to save taxpayers money by making the HELP scheme more sustainable. It also foreshadows universities being ­required to do more for their commonwealth funding — that means things like educational outcomes and employment outcomes,” he said.

Greens education spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said her party would vote against the ­“blatant attack on students” and “cruel university funding model”.

(The Australian Newspaper reporter Rosie Lewis and Education Editor Julie Hare)