Pyne’s reforms all at sea
The last sitting week of the year saw the Australian Government finally put its plans for higher education reform to the Senate. The vote was lost 31 to 33, but the defeat was narrower than many anticipated just a few weeks earlier. The Government was always going to get the votes of crossbencher Senators David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day, but unexpectedly it managed to win over John Madigan and Ricky Muir as well. Just two more votes would have secured the bill’s passage.
The defeated bill, which would have seen caps on university fees lifted, had been significantly amended to account for concerns raised by crossbencher Senators and the community. In November, Madigan offered five non-negotiable amendments, with the first two making it into the government’s bill:
- Abandon real interest rate charges on student debt
- Pause indexation of student debt for primary caregivers of a child for five years after birth
- Establish a regulator to tackle excessive fees
- Create a structural adjustment fund for regional universities
- Provide greater support for regional students from poor backgrounds
Meeting the first two demands alone meant foregoing $3 billion of the bill’s budgeted savings over 4 years. With this deal rejected by the Senate on Wednesday, Pyne immediately introduced a modified bill in the lower house. It contains further concessions which effectively mean all five of Madigan’s amendments are now part of the Government’s plan. The trouble now for Pyne is getting the most unruly of the crossbenchers on board. PUP leader Clive Palmer claims he can’t foresee any situation that would make his party vote for them and Jacqui Lambie is still taking every opportunity available to denounce fee deregulation as an attack on the working class.
Even though the bill looks likely to head nowhere next year, for the first time Labor’s position on higher education funding has come under more scrutiny as crossbenchers have sought assurances that the opposition has a plan to meet the funding needs of the higher education system. Senator Kim Carr, the Labor shadow minister for universities, has said the party would attempt to make universities more accountable for student outcomes by making a share of funding dependent upon retaining and graduating students.
Where to from here is uncertain. University leaders, who have tended to support fee deregulation (Stephen Parker being a notable exception), are now worried about what next year will bring if the government does not get its bill passed. Some believe the government may use non-legislative channels to cut university funding (i.e. by reducing research grants), an option Treasurer Joe Hockey’s alluded to when he told AFR in November:
“We’ll find any way we can to take the money out of the universities.”
With the Government now mulling a ‘media blitz‘ to promote the reforms to the public, you can bet we’ll be hearing a lot more about Pyne’s plans in 2015.