ABC News, 31 March 2015
By Emma Griffiths
Video and audio link: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-31/universities-call-to-reset-higher-education-reform-debate/6360734
Australia’s leading research universities have called for a “depoliticised process” to reset the higher education debate, fearing talks with the split Senate crossbench will result in too many changes.
The Coalition’s proposal to deregulate university course fees, which was announced in last year’s budget with a 20 per cent cut to federal funding, was knocked back twice by the Senate.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the Group of Eight – Australia’s top tier higher education institutions – was sending a message to the eight crossbench senators.
“The issues that the Group of Eight have are with the amendments that the Senate crossbench wanted,” he said.
“I think this is a challenge for the Senate crossbench to work with the Group of Eight as well as the Government.
“It’s not the Government’s fault when the Senate crossbench go off on all sorts of tangents.”
After the latest no vote, Education Minister Christopher Pyne declared he was “the fixer”, insisting he would continue to fight to have the package passed.
But the Group of Eight wants any future review of the sector to call on business groups and focus on research funding, to avoid the “political animosity and polarisation which have characterised recent debate”.
Group spokeswoman Vicki Thomson said the organisation was aware other compromise deals were being discussed.
“If there are compromises we probably wouldn’t support a lot of those, and that is completely different to us withdrawing our support from the Government’s package,” she told the ABC’s AM program.
“We’re saying we need to press the reset button and we need to pause and look at what the actual problems are.”
The group wants to head off any more changes that may be wrought through negotiations with the split crossbench of eight senators.
“These compromise packages, which may look attractive as a short-term solution, may have perverse outcomes that we’re unaware of unless we actually look at them in some detail,” Ms Thomson said.
However, a spokesman for Mr Pyne said the Government would “continue to press” for its original changes and “does not plan another review”.
South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon proposed another review at the beginning of the year to “break the impasse”.
“I’d like to think [the Minister] will be flexible in his position on this, because he needs to understand that the numbers are just not there,” he told AM.
Crossbench senators have already successfully fought for a backdown on increasing interest rates on student loans and a new measure to give new parents a five-year interest rate pause.
Labor’s higher education spokesman Kim Carr said no new review would convince voters to support $100,000 degrees.
“The politics of this issue is such that the Australian people, who have to pay the bills, are not prepared to accept fee hikes of the type that are now inevitably involved in deregulation,” he said.