The Australian, 17 Mar 2015
By SARAH MARTIN and ROSIE LEWIS
A LAST-DITCH compromise aimed at winning support for university fee deregulation will be voted down by the Senate tomorrow, leaving the future of tertiary funding in doubt.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s surprise move to split the government’s higher education reform bill yesterday failed to win over the six crossbench senators needed for the government to pass the reform.
While Victorian John Madigan was still considering his position last night, six senators remain opposed, despite leading universities saying the government’s concessions “should now pave the way for the bill to pass unimpeded”.
Tony Abbott said the government remained very committed to the reforms to liberate universities and remove the “dead hand” of government from setting fees.
But only Family First senator Bob Day has indicated he will support the bill.
Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said if the bill was defeated, the sector would be left without a solution to its funding shortfall.
“Voting down the bill is not going to be the answer to what we all know and what has been recognised by all crossbenchers in various forms … that there is an issue about long-term sustainable funding for universities and research,” she said.
The amended bill to be voted on tomorrow will include measures allowing universities to set their own fees along with previously adopted amendments to peg student loans to the rate of inflation — as measured by the CPI — and establish a new scholarship fund.
A proposed $1.9 billion funding cut will be set aside for consideration in the winter session of parliament.
After declaring on Sunday he was “contemplating victory” for the Coalition’s higher education reform bill, Mr Pyne conceded that removing controversial cuts to research and course funding was needed as part of negotiations.
In an attempt to persuade senators to salvage fee deregulation for the sector, Mr Pyne pledged to remove the $1.9bn cut to course subsidies from the legislation, and reinstate $150 million in funding for national research programs employing 1700 scientists.
Labelling the two issues a distraction from the core reform of deregulation, Mr Pyne said he was hopeful the change would win over wavering senators and allow deregulation to “stand and fall on its own merit”.
“I have consistently said the reforms that will transform higher education in Australia are at the heart of this package,” Mr Pyne said. “We want to clear away any distractions or hurdles that stand in the path of the crossbenchers openly considering the government’s deregulation agenda.”
The university sector, which has been lobbying against the 20 per cent funding cut and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy changes, claimed the government’s revised reform package was a win for researchers.
The chief executive of the Group of Eight universities, Vicki Thomson, said there now remained no impediments to senators passing the landmark reform. “These concessions by the government should now pave the way for the bill to pass unimpeded without the distraction of funding cuts,” Ms Thomson said. “The Senate can now concentrate on the core principle of the much needed reform — fee deregulation and that of making sure universities can be funded properly.”
Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said the government’s move to reinstate funding was welcome by the sector, which had been “very nervous” about the government’s threat. “It is a good outcome,” Professor Chubb told The Australian. “It would have been pretty devastating had it not been funded.”
He said there remained a need to develop a long-term funding model for the country’s 27 NCRIS facilities, which together support 30,000 researchers, with the program’s advisory committee to make recommendations in May.
Mr Pyne said he had found $150m for the NCRIS program through other savings that would be revealed in the May 12 budget.
He had earlier warned that 1700 scientific research jobs under the NCRIS program were at risk if the Senate blocked the research bill, saying the funding was “inextricably linked” to deregulation. “There are consequences for not voting for this reform and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand,” he said last week.
Mr Abbott said the opposition had only funded the NCRIS program until this year. “If the Labor Party thought this was so important, why didn’t they fund it? ”
Bill Shorten said the government had been forced into a “humiliating backdown”. “They should … back down all the way and drop their proposal for $100,000 degrees,” the Opposition Leader said.
Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr said the government’s changes would make “not one jot of difference” to the Senate’s vote. “Minister Pyne is engaged in nothing more than a pantomime to cover his humiliating withdrawal for an unpopular policy which does not warrant Senate support either in terms of the fee deregulation or the cuts to the budget,” Senator Carr said.
Crossbench senators Nick Xenophon, Glenn Lazarus, Zhenya Wang, Jacqui Lambie, Ricky Muir and David Leyonhjelm said they would vote against the revised bill.
Senator Leyonhjelm supports deregulation, but will not support the reforms unless the government agrees to further amendments limiting the growth in student debt.
Senator Xenophon said he would not support the legislation, objecting to “policy on the run” , while maintaining concerns about deregulation.
Additional reporting: Andrew Trounson