Deregulation decked, again

But the Pyneator will be back

I have now heard it all

I just don’t know what it means. Anna Burke (Labor-Vic) in the House of Representatives yesterday called the Pyne plan “Gomer Pyle on steroids.”

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Deregulation defeated, again

The Senate voted deregulation down again last night. Despite Monday’s concessions, and negotiations yesterday Chris Pyne was only supported by three cross benchers, Bob Day, David Leyonhejlm and John Madigan. The other independents were adamant in opposition.

Just as there was no surprises in the vote so the response of interest groups was entirely predictable. The National Tertiary Education Union, which has run a skilful and energetic campaign was delighted but disciplined.  “All senators who voted against the government’s unfair, unprincipled and unsustainable higher education policies have earned the gratitude of university students, staff and communities; and future students,” national president Jeannie Rea said.

In contrast, the university lobbies acknowledged defeat but did not accept it. The Regional Universities Network demanded an end to the impasse, “universities are too important to the nation to be used in a partisan way as a political football.”

The Group of Eight‘s Vicki Thomson warned the Senate vote solved nothing and went to the heart of the contradiction between deregulated enrolments and regulated funding. “What we are left to manage is a broken system, one where there is a deregulated intake of students but a regulated fee structure and much reduced government funding. It simply cannot work.”

And Universities Australia urged the government to have another go.  “UA welcomes the government’s undertaking to work with senators and others to develop a new approach and we encourage all parliamentarians to participate in shaping a high-performance Australian university system. A no vote is no solution,” UA chief Belinda Robinson said.

Ms Robinson warned of consequences without change. “We will see classes getting bigger, we will see difficult decisions around campuses and courses.”

He’ll be back

That the Pynenator will be back is not in doubt, even before he committed last night to sending deregulation to the Senate for a third time time. But what? More of the same is my guess– given there is not being much more he can concede from his original package without deleting everything after “A bill for an act… “.

Minister Pyne’s challenge is to argue his case again, with the people as well as the parliament and bring the legislation back to the Senate this year. He has no choice and well-placed people say he has genuine backing from the PM.

The government has no other option. Deregulation is now the equivalent of Work Choices for the Liberals in the first term of opposition. Even if the government announces the plan is dead and buried the Opposition will keep raising it through to the election. It was part of Labor’s Question Time/MPI strategy in the Reps yesterday. As Wayne Swan put it (oh come on, you remember Swanny). “If Abbott and Pyne want to fight an election on the Americanisation of our higher ed system, bring it on.” The bill is defeated but the debate isn’t terminated.

Is there anything to talk about? Last night on ABC‘s 7.30 Report Jacqui Lambie made her deep distaste for deregulation very clear, (she is no fan of Mr Pyne either) but she likes the idea of sub-degree places. And every senator has issues that are equally important to them.

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New skin in the game

Labor assistant higher education spokeswoman Amanda Rishworth has a new baby, Percy. I wonder if his mum will still be arguing with Chris Pyne about student fees when he is ready to start university.

Postgrads cop cut

Amidst all the cheering for NCRIS yesterday the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the Greens Lee Rhiannon worry research students could still cop it one way or another. The budget cut to the Research Training Scheme and commensurate hike in study costs for research postgraduates are intended to cost students around $4000 a year. Maybe the government thinks universities will absorb the fee or maybe it thinks all postgraduates go on to make a motza from commercialising publicly supported research. Or maybe the government thinks they are an easy touch for savings, being the least powerful lobby in higher education, apart from casual teaching staff. The many people who are members of both groups must wonder what whammy is next.

Class conflict

Kim Carr summed up what opposition to deregulation is now about when he said in the Senate yesterday the government believed “it’s a rich man’s country yet.” (For readers under 120 I think he was quoting Palmer and Jacob’s The Ballad of 91). Minister Pyne’s “unfair, unnecessary ideological agenda” is an attack on the fair go, the senator said. There was a great deal of detail in the speech, but what it came down to is Senator Carr’s conviction that deregulation is an ideologically inspired attack on education as an engine of social mobility and that the government is wrong, that there is political will in Australia to fund higher education. “We will force this government to submit its plans to the verdict of the people and this is a contest we will relish,” Senator Carr said.

It was left to Senator Zed Seselja (Liberal-ACT) to point to the problem with the strategy. Unless caps are placed on demand driven funding universities will need more money. The question is where it should come from. The government says students, if universities choose to jack up fees. Senator Carr says the state. Unless of course demand driven funding is abolished – which would then create a higher education issue that would actually interest the electorate – a return to rationing of university places.

Community of scholars

VCs are not avuncular figureheads invested by university communities with any actual representative function; they are the overlords of a managerial caste ever more remote from the staff and students they administer.” Nick Riemer (via NTEU) on university management’s support for the Pyne package.

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Whole lot of legislating going on

Well, a bit. Among the blueing in both chambers parliament has actually accomplished something important for education, with the Senate passing the government’s legislation cracking down on “dodgy” voced providers. The bill gives the Australian Skills Quality Authority increased power to act against Registered Training Organisations or their agents who gull people into signing up for courses when they do not understand the cost and/or other commitments. The legislation is long overdue and follows comprehensive media coverage of spectacularly cynical exploitation of vulnerable people. It is hard to imagine how it ever was allowed to come to this, but good for new training minister Simon Birmingham for getting this going and for the Opposition for passing the bill without fuss.

Drop in a barrel

Charles Sturt University is getting out of “large-scale” winemaking to focus on “premium boutique wines at its experimental winery. The university says it can teach winemaking on-line and through industry placements and a “large-scale commercial operations:” is viable. Fair enough, but large-scale? CSU says it produces 10 000 cases a year, not so much given the Bureau of Statistics reports Australia produced 1.23bn litres of wine in 2012-13.

Briefing book

The Opposition initiated Senate Education and Employment References Committee report on the Pyne package was tabled yesterday and while the ample arguments in the majority report were not needed to vote the bill down it is a thorough guide to selling the status quo, thus:

”Australia’s higher education sector is robust and sustainable, and has an international reputation founded on the quality of its institutions and the courses they provide. It is innovative and equitable and something Australians can be proud of. The radical changes proposed in the bill could rapidly destroy this.

In fact all that is required is, “tweaking.” Of anything in particular? Try admissions; the majority report pointed to low ATAR, high attrition and alternative entry scores. “The committee is of the view that evidence of emerging trends of a slide in retention, and the lack of transparency in admissions is of concern. The committee does not accept the argument that Australia needs to choose between quality and standards on one hand, and access and equity on the other.” Fair enough, but I wonder who should get to decide who brokers the balance.

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Whatever you want it to mean

Another day, another list of league tables, today’s being from the Times Higher, listing top 100s by discipline groups. One is for the humanities, where Australia has eight institutions, as follows ANU (16), Sydney (18), Melbourne (19), Monash (44), Queensland and Macquarie (joint 67), La Trobe 99 and UNSW 100. Demonstrates everything is under control, opponents of reform will say. We could have twice this, advocates of change, will reply.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au