The Australian Financial Review, 17 March 2015
By Tim Dodd
University’s warned that the Senate’s defeat on Tuesday night of the Abbott government’s higher education reform bill had postponed a solution to their urgent funding problem.
“It has been sad and depressing to see a legislative package so crucial to our nation’s future become a political football,” said Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight which represents the most prestigious universities.
“Many senators acknowledge that the funding of our universities is not sustainable. Noting this, it is disappointing that the Opposition and the cross benchers still refused to vote for the legislation.”
The legislation was defeated in the Senate 34-30 despite last minute amendments by Education Minister Christopher Pyne to remove a 20 per cent cut to student subsidies from the bill in the hope of attracting enough cross bench votes to get it through.
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.
Ms 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 Pyne said after the vote that he would not give up on university reform and would bring another package back to the parliament.
“This reform is too important. We will continue to work with senators and others who wish to be part of a constructive discussion,” he said.
After the vote Universities Australia (UA), which represents all 39 major universities, welcomed Mr Pyne’s intention to work with senators to develop a new policy package which could be passed.
UA chief executive Belinda Robinson said that that all sides agreed that the current level of public funding for universities was insufficient and she called for bipartisan support for change. She warned it would not be beneficial if higher education policy was fought out as an election issue.
“Our universities, and the hopes and aspirations of our children, can no longer afford to be treated as a convenient political football,” she said.
The Regional Universities Network (RUN), said it was “deeply disappointed” by the failure of the bill.
“This impasse will not help our regions, students or institutions. We urge the government and Senate to resolve this impasse as a matter of priority,” said RUN chair Professor Peter Lee.
However the National Tertiary Education Union welcomed the defeat of the bill.
“All senators who voted against the government’s unfair, unprincipled and unsustainable higher education policies have earned the gratitude of university students, staff and communities, and future students,” said NTEU national president, Jeannie Rea.