The Australian Financial Review, 19 Mar 2015
By Tim Dodd and Phil Coorey
The federal government remains determined to deregulate university student fees, even though the Senate has rejected the plan twice, and is seeking advice from the universities’ lobbyist After the Senate voted 34-30 on Tuesday night to defeat the legislation, Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed “to have another go”.
Backed by lobby groups that maintain the current funding model is broken, Mr Abbott said “if our universities are to flourish in the years ahead, they need to lose the dead hand of Canberra”. The government is prepared to change tack and is seeking industry feedback. The sector intends to be more demanding next time and will not support measures it does not like, such as funding cuts.
In the May budget the government moved to increase the interest rate on student loans, cut funding to universities by 20 per cent and deregulate fees.
The government dropped the HECS indexation but the other two matters were defeated by the Senate before Christmas.
This week, the government dropped the 20 per cent funding cut in a bid to just pass the deregulation of fees but that too, failed.
If passed the bill would have deregulated fees for bachelor degrees and helped more students get into university by extending government subsidies to pathway diploma courses, which lead into a degree.
It would also have increased competition for universities by subsidising bachelor degree courses that are offered by TAFEs and private colleges, and directed one-fifth of any student fee increases to a scholarship fund.
Group of Eight chief executive, Vicki Thomson said universities needed a long-term, sustainable solution to their funding problems.
“What we are left to manage is a broken system, one where there is a deregulated intake of students but a regulated fee structure and much reduced government funding. It simply cannot work,” she said.
Mr Abbott appears to have put the Senate crossbench offside after he referred to the “feral Senate” during a meeting with MPs on Tuesday, jeopardising further attempts to legislate.
On Wednesday, Mr Abbott contended he was talking about Labor and the Greens. “The Labor Party and the Greens are completely feral. They are obstructing for obstruction’s sake on most issues, certainly on economic and budget issues, they’re obstructing for obstruction’s sake and I invite the Labor Party that caused these problems to now contribute to the solution,” he said.
But some of the crossbenchers took umbrage, leading to heated scenes during Senate question time.
Independent Senator Glenn Lazarus said the comment was “unhelpful” regarding further negotiations while Jacqui Lambie called the Prime Minister a psychopath.
Attorney-General George Brandis told Senator Lazarus the Senate should be a House of Review, “not a House of refusal”.