The Australian, 16 March 2015
By Stefanie Balogh and Sarah Martin
THE push to deregulate tertiary fees and “liberate’’ universities will not be abandoned by the government even if the Senate votes down changes this week.
As one of Labor’s most senior figures, Peter Beattie, warns that failure to act means Australia will be left behind, Tony Abbott said yesterday he remained “very committed’’ to the changes that would remove the “dead hand of Canberra” from fees.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has vowed to fight to the wire to secure Senate crossbench support. The vote is expected on Wednesday.
The government is making a second attempt to pass its reforms after substantially reworking December’s failed package.
It faces an almost impossible task of locking-in the six crossbench votes it needs in the face of resistance from Labor and the Greens.
Only Family First Senator Bob Day said yesterday he was inclined to support the overhaul, “because it means more opportunities for lower-income students to get a basic degree’’, while independent John Madigan is still weighing his options.
The other six crossbenchers — senators Nick Xenophon, David Leyonhjelm, Ricky Muir, Zhenya Wang, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus — all told The Australian they would vote against the changes.
“I understand that the higher education sector is unsustainable in the longer term, but this is not a good way to run public policy and I don’t think they have thought through the consequences,’’ Senator Xenophon said.
Despite the numbers, Mr Pyne said he was “contemplating victory’’ and continuing 11th-hour negotiations, with everything on the table apart from fee deregulation, and was open to compromise suggestions.
The government’s reforms are designed to uncap university fees, cut funding to universities by 20 per cent and index student loans to the consumer price index.
Unlike the Medicare co-payment, the government does not view the tertiary sector measures as a so-called “barnacle’’, because university vice-chancellors support the central plank of fee deregulation.
Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight coalition of leading Australian universities, implored crossbenchers to support the legislation.
“The positive outcomes for students that will flow from fee deregulation have been lost in the 10 months of acrimonious political debate,’’ she said.
Speaking yesterday, the Prime Minister said the government wanted to “unshackle our universities to be the best that they can be. I don’t just want one Australian university in the top 50 — I would like to see two at least in the top 20’’.
During an exclusive weekend interview with The Australian’s editor-at-large Paul Kelly and foreign editor Greg Sheridan on Sky News, Mr Abbott said the “reform as adjusted is one that we stand by’’.
“This is a reform that if it fails, the universities will be seriously impeded and it’s a reform that will come up again,’’ he said. “Just about every vice-chancellor is campaigning for this.’’
His comments indicate the government will not junk the reforms if they fail, suggesting the Coalition will take the issue of funding sustainability and fee deregulation to the next election.
The government needs a tailwind this week as it ends a fortnight of parliamentary sittings.
It is the last scheduled sitting session to pass measures from last year’s budget before this year’s economic blueprint is delivered by Joe Hockey on May 12.
Mr Abbott goes into the sitting with the tensions over his leadership easing but remains under significant pressure to demonstrate the government can secure backing for key reforms.
Mr Beattie, the former Queensland premier, writes in The Australian today that the Rudd and Gillard government changes introducing a demand-driven system by removing enrolment caps was a proud achievement but had “created a problem’’ because the demand for places exceeded budgeted forecasts.
“Make no mistake, without funding reform, Australia’s universities will inevitably slip towards mediocrity and the quality of what and how well Australian graduates learn will decline in relation to our international competitors both in business and education,’’ Mr Beattie writes. “The Senate is holding back Australia’s future. Only bipartisanship can end the nonsense. Australia will be left behind if funding reforms don’t proceed.’’
Mr Beattie’s comments echo those of former Labor minister John Dawkins, the father of the modern university system who earlier this year urged the ALP not to sideline itself from the sensible reforms it has owned for 30 years.
Bill Shorten, however, remains opposed to the government’s package and accused the Coalition yesterday of reaching a “new low’’ by threatening to cut $150 million in annual scientific research funding tied to the measures and holding “hostage’’ the jobs of 1700 researchers.
The implosion of the Palmer United Party on Friday, when Senator Lazarus quit to sit as an independent, has given the government no joy on its higher-education reforms.
Senator Lazarus said he would not horse-trade on the changes. “I have made my position clear. I do not support the Abbott government’s higher education measures,’’ he said.
Senator Wang said he would not support the bill, saying it would make the sector “less sustainable’’, despite earlier suggesting he believed there was a need for reform.
Tasmanian Senator Lambie, in hospital recovering after a minor back operation, is asking doctors to release her to ensure that she can vote down the bill, “even if it means being hooked up to a drip’’.
Additional reporting: Julie Hare