New PM set to review higher education reform package

The overthrow of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this month has led to jubilation on the nation’s university campuses. Faced with a more pragmatic prime minister, and a new education minister, vice-chancellors hope the reconstructed conservative government will reverse its planned cuts to higher education spending.

In interviews last Monday morning, new premier Malcolm Turnbull signalled that the government would review its higher education proposals. The package includes deregulation of the higher education sector and university fees, which would have allowed vice-chancellors to impose their own charges on all university courses, and cuts in government funding for bachelor degrees. The Senate has so far refused to pass the legislation.

Turnbull told ABC: “The government’s position is that reform of the higher education system to promote excellence and greater diversity and choice in higher education is very important, but clearly we’ve got political realities to deal with in the Senate.”

He added: “If you can’t get something through the Senate, I would say it’s highly possible you could change it to something that will get through the Senate.”

Having unseated Abbott in a swift coup on 14 September, the former communications minister announced last Sunday that his would be a government focused on the future.

"If we want to remain a prosperous, first-world economy [with] a generous social welfare safety net, we must be more competitive, we must be more productive; above all we must be more innovative,” Turnbull said. "We're not seeking to proof ourselves against the future: we are seeking to embrace it. And this is a government and a ministry that has that as its focus."

Although many in higher education would have preferred to see former education minister Christopher Pyne relegated to the backbench, Turnbull moved him sideways to become minister for industry, innovation and science.

Pyne will be replaced by the assistant education minister, Simon Birmingham, a senator from South Australia. The switch to Birmingham could mean significant changes to the controversial higher education reforms introduced by Pyne.

Birmingham said last Sunday that he looked forward to “working collaboratively with education stakeholders to develop policy and to build broad support for any future reforms”.

Student debt

Turnbull had already indicated mid-September that the proposed deregulation of university fees might be reviewed. Students enrolling in future years were facing the prospect of finishing their degrees with debts of more than US$100,000, but unless Turnbull reverses the spending cuts, vice-chancellors will have few other ways of generating revenue.

Although elected by a landslide in 2013, Abbott proved to be one of the worst prime ministers Australia has endured. A hard man of the Right, he attempted to move Australia away from the political centre at the same time as behaving in an eccentric and provocative manner that alienated the vast majority of voters.

Among his more eccentric decisions, made on Australia Day last January and without reference to his cabinet, was to reinstate Australia’s former award system and bestow a knighthood on Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth. That decision nearly cost him his job but he promised his party then that he would not be so wayward in future and was given a second chance – which he failed.

Higher education’s main lobby group, Universities Australia, congratulated Birmingham on his appointment but called on the government to immediately abandon a proposed 20% cut in university funding and reverse the decline in public investment in research and innovation.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said Turnbull had “already articulated a clear and optimistic vision for an agile, innovative and creative Australia” that was shared by the universities. But she said this required a partnership to “leverage our intellectual infrastructure and human capital to position Australia for long-term national success”.

"It is our universities that will produce the graduates to create and fill the jobs of the future. It is also our universities, through their research programmes, that will deliver the products, the breakthroughs and new industries needed to secure our long-term prosperity,” Robinson said.

She said that realising the full potential of the nation’s universities required predictable public investment in teaching and learning that would place Australia closer to the top of the OECD, rather than at the bottom.

"And it requires an investment in science and research that enables us to compete with our peers and hold our own on the international stage for the contribution we make to the global research and innovation effort. Over the past decade both major parties, when in government, have sought to cut funding to the very sector responsible for equipping Australia to meet the challenges of change.”

Labor’s position

The group most unhappy at Abbott’s political execution was the Labor Party and its leader Bill Shorten, who was expecting to become Australia’s 30th prime minister following the next election. As part of his plans to show how inadequate the Abbott government was, Shorten announced last Monday that a Labor government would guarantee funding for university teaching and learning.

He described spending on universities as “an investment in the future” and said that Labor would scrap the government's proposed 20% cut to higher education, as well as abandoning Labor's previously announced “efficiency dividend” – another name for a cut in spending. Instead, “the status quo level of funding would be retained”.

Speaking at Monash University, his alma mater, Shorten said Labor’s education policy would result in another 20,000 students completing university every year – and those from disadvantaged backgrounds would not miss out.

Detailing Labor's A$2.5 billion (US$1.8 billion) higher education policy, Shorten said his government would provide A$2,500 in extra funding for each student from 2018. Additional spending would rise to A$9,000 per student over the next decade if Labor won power at the next federal election, he said.

"Well-funded universities are central to the jobs and the economy of the future," Shorten said. "The real economic winners of the digital age won't be countries with big workforces and cheap labour; prosperity in the future will belong to countries with highly skilled, highly adaptable technology literate populations."

The Opposition’s higher education spokesman, Kim Carr, said Labor’s policy would see a 45% funding gap emerge between what Labor and the conservative government were offering universities and students.