With the Coalition’s university deregulation bill headed for total defeat in the Senate those at the coalface of reform are clambering over themselves in compromises as a means to bide time.
Effectively split in two, the first proposal they are expecting to make legislation is all about allowing the universities to set their own fee without reducing commonwealth funding.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has sought consultation with cross-benchers knowing that, with their support, the reform package will edge across the line. He has found favour with the promise of setting aside a proposed 20 per cent cut to base university funding until after the May budget.
Earlier this month the Prime Minister vowed that the higher education bill would be passed by the end of March. Since then the negotiations and compromises have been rife. The proposed original funding cut of $1.9 billion over four years has been left in limbo as Mr Pyne stated it would be “set aside for later consideration.”
The government has “about-faced” on the original proposal to cut $150 million from the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). This move is sure to find favour in the electorate, especially from the 1700 research scientists who have kept their jobs because of this.
“I am not prepared to let these reforms be drowned out by distractions and it is clear to me that the bill will not pass the Senate in its current form,” Mr Pyne said.
“I have consistently said the reforms that will transform higher education in Australia are at the heart of this package.
The amended bill almost looks like a new one with measures including:
- Allowing universities to set their own fees, in line with the expectation that domestic fees and lower that international ones
- Major commonwealth scholarship programs
- Access to HEC’S-style loans for private college and TAFE students
- Increased emphasis on students having better pathways to university or sub-degree qualifications to prepare for jobs
The most significant change to the bill exists in the saving of 1700 scientists in the NCRIS program. Since 2004 the government has invested over $2.5 billion in national research infrastructure with 27 facilities for over 30,000 researchers. In last year’s budget a further $150 million was promised to the program but, as Mr Pyne stipulated, it was contingent on how much money could be siphoned-off elsewhere.
Clearly the cross-benchers wouldn’t like to have this hanging over their heads as Mr Pyne has so cannily suggested it might.
“There are consequences for not voting for this reform and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand,” Mr Pyne said last week.
“The consequences are that potentially 1,700 researchers will lose their jobs.”
Ultimately the cross-benchers have reacted angrily, accused Mr Pyne of “blackmail” and petitioned the minister to split the bill.
“Australians should be angry that the Abbott Government is threatening to hurt people by cutting more jobs, including research and scientific positions, in order to try and blackmail the Senate into supporting deregulation,” former Palmer United senator Glenn Lazarus said in a statement.