Turnbull's shelving of uni deregulation explained

October 02, 2015
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Well, since former Education Minister Chris “The Fixer” Pyne has been airdropped into the portfolio of Industry, Innovation and Science and no doubt has his hands full building the government’s new Deathstar, the future of higher education is now up to a Liberal by the name of Simon Birmingham.

Yesterday, our new Education Minister laid out some hope for that future (at least where HECS debt is concerned) by announcing that the Abbott government’s infamous university fee deregulation bill will be shelved until at least 2017.

But the problems that led to the one of the most unpopular bills since the Liberals took over government aren’t going away any time soon. Australian universities are still facing a serious funding crisis, forced to make what they call “difficult decisions” around staff and research cuts. What’s next, then, for higher education?

Pyne’s big fix

Deregulation – it was the word that sparked fierce protests at universities all over the country and one pretty awkward attempt to burn a Chris Pyne effigy. In the May 2014 budget, Pyne announced he would cut university funding by 20 per cent and leave universities to raise their own revenue by removing the cap on fees.

This, he said, would deliver “a huge adrenaline shot of competition” to the sector, reinvigorating universities and keeping fees low – while also saving the government a cool $4 billion dollars over four years.

But critics weren’t buying it and predicted some degrees such as medicine could blow out to $100,000 dollars. The gap between elite institutions and poorer universities would grow. Obligatory cigars would be handed out at all Go8 graduates.

In other words, Pyne’s love of free-market solutions would Americanise the Australian university sector faster than opening a Krispy Kremes.

The Senate was having none of it. In its first passage through the Upper House, Pyne’s bill was voted down 33 votes to 31. And despite all of The Fixer’s hard work sexing up the reforms, even putting aside the 20 per cent funding cut for later debate, its second run was equally brutal - failing again 34 votes to 30.

Reform on hold

Despite all that, Chris Pyne was busy rolling up his sleeves for Round Three when this month’s leadership change saw him shunted into another portfolio.

Our shiny new Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who says he was educated in “low socio-economic” schools, has taken a different tone.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education Conference on Thursday, he said Pyne’s failed reforms created “uncertainty” in the sector and that the government was “accepting reality”.

“I will only ever champion reforms that achieve both equity and excellence,” he said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flagged the move earlier in the month, as part of his new model of “flexible government”.

"Well if you can't get something through the Senate, it is, I would say it's highly possible that you could change it to something that will get through the Senate," he told ABC’s AM program.

Now, shelving deregulation is already being called Turnbull’s first big break away from the “barnacles” of Tony Abbott.

If deregulation won’t work, what will?

But, even as our universities climbed in world rankings this week, university leaders upped their calls for reform.

Last week, Labor announced its own plan for higher education – aiming to increase the number of students graduating by 20,000 a year from 2020. A “Student Funding Guarantee” is set to provide around $11,800 for every undergraduate at university and offset Pyne’s proposed 20 percent cut – with interest.

But leading higher education consultant David Phillips says rushing into a “plan B” fix could make the situation worse.

"The ideas out there aren't much more developed than points on a Powerpoint slide," he told Fairfax.

Let’s hope then that the new Turnbull era of flexibility and debate can bring together the best minds on the issue and find a solution. That Bill and Malcolm can take a bi-partisan approach to reforming the university sector fairly.

And that, if they do, real reform will move at least half as fast as Chris “The Fixer” Pyne.

Sherryn Groch

Sherryn is studying journalism at RMIT University. She enjoys writing short stories, frolicking in unsecured meadows and sometimes tweets at @Sherryn_G.

Image: Ian Sanderson, Flickr Creative Commons license