Reform vote leaves universities uncertain of funding

An inept government and its even more inept education minister have left the nation’s vice-chancellors uncertain where their future funding will come from after the senate rejected a higher education reform bill for the second time.

Strong divisions have also been created between the university chiefs and their academic and general staff following the vice-chancellors’ support for lifting restrictions on the amount they can charge for tuition fees.

On 17 March, the senate again rejected a revised higher education “reform package” that would have uncapped tuition fees and pushed more of the cost of a degree on to students.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott has continually miscalculated community attitudes since its election 18 months ago. Gaffe-prone to an extent unseen before in Australian politics, Abbott himself lost so much support within his own party that he was almost displaced last month and is now widely considered to be “living on borrowed time”.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has proved to be his bumbling equal by first presenting a bill that appalled the vice-chancellors and the academics’ union with its plans to cut government spending on universities by 20% while shifting much of the cost on to students.

Pyne’s efforts to negotiate deals with a group of independent cross-bench senators included a warning last week that 1,700 research scientists would lose their jobs unless the senate passed the bill. The senators rejected the threat and the bill, forcing Pyne to withdraw it completely although he may try presenting another revised version later in the year.

But he gained the support of the great majority of vice-chancellors when he deferred the proposed 20% cut in funding. They were also mostly delighted to have the freedom for the first time to set their own tuition fees and to be certain as to the amount of money the government would give them.

A lone voice

The head of the University of Canberra, Professor Stephen Parker, has been a lone voice from the beginning in opposing the government plans to hand vice-chancellors the power to set their own tuition fees. Writing in The Conversation, Parker described the events leading up to the withdrawal of the bill as “an entire fiasco”.

“The package was amended in ways which would make the proposed system more expensive to the taxpayer than the current system. This revealed that, at their core, the measures were about ideology and not budget savings,” Parker said.

“They were about strengthening competition and private markets in higher education. Also, the higher education sector saw unworthy tactics such as [Pyne’s] threats to cut research infrastructure funding and Future Fellowships, if a package mainly about teaching was not passed.”

Union’s response

The National Tertiary Education Union said university staff would applaud the senate’s decision, given the bill would have “priced a university education out of the reach of ordinary Australians”.

“The senate emphatically voted down the deregulation of university fees, the cutting of government funding and the subsidising of private education profiteers,” said union president Jeannie Rea. “In a humiliating defeat, more senators voted down deregulation mark II than those that rejected the original legislation last December.”

Rea said the senators who had voted against the government’s “unfair, unprincipled and unsustainable higher education policies” had earned the gratitude of university students, staff and communities – and future students.

“The lesson to be learned from this debacle is that when contemplating policy changes of this magnitude, the concerns of Australian families, who aspire to go to university and gain a high quality reputable degree, must be heard,” she said.

Universities Australia

Universities Australia chief executive, Belinda Robinson, had backed the revised bill and had stood alongside Pyne when he told a press conference he had the support of the universities. But Robinson had to accept the senate’s decision and said it at least provided the opportunity “for a national discussion on a long-term, sustainable and predictable funding model for university education and research”.

“This almost year-long debate has achieved a remarkable political consensus on one critical factor: that the current state of public investment in universities is insufficient for maintaining and enhancing the quality expected by students, employers and the community,” she said.

“The parliament gives bi-partisan support for national security and defence in the public interest. This consensus should extend to the intellectual building blocks of our economic security. Defeat of the bill has created the opportunity for the government to engage with all stakeholders in developing a robust funding framework that is durable, sustainable and predictable.”

A ‘curious positive’

But Parker, rather bravely, pointed to “a curious positive” arising from the last 10 months: whether there was even a problem with university funding.

“If one starts from the premise that vice-chancellors have a conditioned reflex to say that they need more money (and according to one former vice-chancellor they have been saying this since 1947), we are now alerted to the need to greet with suspicion claims that [current] arrangements are not `sustainable’.”

In fact, Parker said, a fair examination of the evidence would show that overall investment in Australian universities was around the OECD average. As he also noted, the existing funding system had enabled more Australian universities to enter world rankings in the last decade and, scaled for population size and gross domestic product or GDP, Australia already had one of the best systems in the world.