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In the media: Uni reforms headed for defeat despite concessions concessions

Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Mar 2015

By Matthew Knott

The Abbott government’s lastditch bid to win support for its higher education reforms by abandoning a threat to sack 1700 scientists has failed to convince the Senate crossbench to support the deregulation of university fees.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced on Monday that the government would continue to fund the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) described as the “backbone of research in Australia” even if the Senate blocks fee deregulation.

Mr Pyne said the government was also prepared to sacrifice $1.9 billion in savings by separating a proposed 20 per cent cut to course funding from the bill to deregulate university fees.

The government’s higher education package was originally designed to save the budget $4 billion over four years, but if the 20 per cent cut is blocked, as expected, it would instead cost an estimated $1.3 billion over the same period.

Mr Pyne said as recently as Sunday that $150 million in funding for the NCRIS, which directly employs 1700 leading researchers working in health, manufacturing, ocean monitoring and other fields, was “inextricably linked” to the passage of deregulation.

Both concessions were embraced by university leaders, but failed to dent the opposition of the independent senators.

A vote on deregulation is expected by Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for Palmer United Party Senator Zhenya “Dio” Wang who has previously expressed support for deregulation said he would vote against allowing universities to set their own fees.

“Senator Wang will not change his mind he still opposes the bill,” the spokeswoman said.

The government should focus on recouping student debts, including from graduates who move overseas, rather than increasing them, the spokeswoman said.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said: “Nothing has changed this is policy on the run.

Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm said he supports the proposed funding cut for universities but was leaning towards voting against deregulation. Senator Leyonhjelm is concerned deregulation would cost taxpayers money because of unpaid student debts.

Senators Glenn Lazarus and Jacqui Lambie are still opposed and Fairfax Media understands Ricky Muir remains opposed.

With only Family First senator Bob Day locked in to a yes vote, the government is well short of the six crossbench votes it needs.

Mr Pyne described the research funding threat and 20 per cent course funding cut as “distractions” from the government’s deregulation agenda.

“I hope this will clear away hurdles that might have been there before,” he said. “The Coalition is for reform, it’s for freedom, it’s for letting unis be their best selves. It’s for maximising their support and revenue, doing the best quality research possible.”

The government will fund the NCRIS, which supports 27 facilities across Australia, for another year at a cost of $150 million.

The threat to axe the world-renowned program had angered independent senators, the scientific community and the Business Council of Australia, which accused the government of holding scientists’ jobs “hostage”.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson urged the Senate to pass the reforms and said all the peak body’s qualifications

about supporting fee deregulation had now been met. “We just reiterate the point that if this bill goes down, if this bill is voted against, that is no solution,” she said.

Group of Eight universities chief executive Vicki Thomson said it would be “unthinkable” for the government’s reforms to fail.

“The present funding model is broken,” she said. “University funding is an investment in Australia’s future. The [Group of Eight] implores the Senate to this week make the right decision for every student and for Australia.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the concessions were a “humiliating backdown” and called for the government to abandon its proposals altogether.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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