2014 university fee deregulation in review

December 15, 2014
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Hurrah, the parliamentary year has come to a close. But for those of you who switched off months ago in disgust or, much more likely, apathetic ambivalence, what are the main things you need to know about the year 2014 in Aussie politics?

2014 picked up where it left off and ended in a place all too familiar for anyone who tuned in to previous instalments of the farcical sitcom that our federal politics has become. A government unable to win public support or votes in the senate for key pillars of its policy platform, and a besieged Prime Minister slipping in the polls as leadership speculation begins on cue.

Meanwhile we said goodbye to a carbon tax and hello to a tough love budget that still refuses to completely go away. A senator of the rogue PUP decided to go rogue herself and proclaim independence, and debt was the buzzword of the year. But how exactly did students fare?

Fee deregulation’ are the two words that come to mind, and even if you lived under a rock, or had engineering contact hours, say, you would’ve heard of it. Whether you were hassled by the Socialist Alternative, stampeded by the student marches that swept the country in May, or even just turned on Q&A at the wrong moment, it was a topic that couldn’t be avoided.

The reforms threatened to remove the cap on tuition fees and allow the market forces of supply and demand to dictate what a student pays for their higher education. Fees could double, triple, and a degree could even hit six figures.

But while students labelled the proposals catastrophic, ultimately the debate was divided; removing the shackles to promote innovation within a stunted university sector, or simply a death sentence to fair and equal access to an education. Either side could point at the US for back-up, citing colossal student debt on one hand, or the world class quality of Ivy League schools on the other.

But regardless, Clive Palmer saved the day or played the villain, waking up one morning, shaking his magic eight ball, and deciding that perhaps this fee deregulation thing wasn’t too great, and another opportunity to stick it to Lord Tone was far too good to turn up. The changes were eventually voted down by the senate 33-31.

Like a turd that refuses to be flushed, however, old mate Pyne has promised a Round Two, but how he will ensure the sequel is a 22 Jump Street and not a Horrible Bosses 2 remains to be seen. What is known for sure though is a lot more than texting, chocolates, and red roses will be needed to bring Glenn Lazarus and other crossbenchers to the table next year.

Most likely some other changes will have to be dropped from the package to make the reforms more palatable, including the increase of the HECS repayment interest by coupling it to the 10 year government bond rate or cuts to funding. Otherwise Pyne will have to offer reluctant crossbenchers much more bang for their buck than carrots like the eleventh hour $400m Tasmanian higher education package.

Nevertheless, university students certainly found their voice this year, from forcing Abbott to cancel a visit to Deakin University to bringing the Melbourne CBD to a standstill. And although the extent to which the protests influenced Capitol Hill is debatable, Pyne is in for another grubbing if Round Two commences as promised.

Ben Latham

Ben Latham is studying a Bachelor of Science/Arts at Australian National University.