Deregulation legislation: no change on budget plan

Plus Pyne’s corollary to Kerrigans Law

Ambivalently adamant opposition

You have to wonder how deep runs Labor’s opposition to the Pyne package, (Kim Carr excepted). On the day the government introduced the most comprehensive higher education changes in a generation the Opposition attack in Reps Question Time yesterday was heavy on War Memorial, not university, funding. Senator Carr says Labor will fight the legislation in House and Senate both, I’m guessing harder in the latter than the former.

As for the Palmer United Party, plus pal Senator Muir – just who are the four of them listening to? Staff have told university lobbyists they will wait to see the legislation before taking advice. UA, ATN, IRU, RUN and NTEU your time starts now

Kerrigan’s Law

Kerrigan’s Law of Message Management holds that when a point is hard to make you say, “it’s in the vibe.” But now we have Pyne’s corollary: when an argument is causing problems you dismiss it as a fact-free vibe. As Mr Pyne did with Kieran Gilbert on Sky News yesterday, “there is no evidence that students are disengaged in universities because of fees. None whatsoever and this debate has been around for months. Now what a lot of this is a – so-called vibe – you know like from The Castle – it’s the vibe. People have to make decisions based on research, on facts, not on anecdotal evidence.”

 The ayes have it

Universities Australia nailed its colours to the deregulation legislation mast yesterday, calling on the Senate to pass most of the package. It wants senators to “moderate” the size of the proposed average 20 per cent cut to course funding, the continued use of CPI as the interest rate on student debt and a package for universities in “disadvantaged and regional communities,” but otherwise UA endorsed reform. The parliament has “a once in a generation opportunity to shape an Australian higher education system that is sustainable, affordable and equitable in serving the best interests of students and the nation,” UA CEO Belinda Robinson said. The Australian Council for Private Education and Training also welcomed the bill. “It is pretty much what we were expecting. There is a lot of work to be done but our first requirement is to get some competition in the market,” acting CEO Larry Davies said yesterday.

No, nays have it

But the National Tertiary Education Union is not having any of it. “Pyne’s package will be bad for students and many of our universities and communities. It should be rejected outright.” Neither is Labor’s Kim Carr, “Labor will fight these unfair changes every step of the way.” As for the Greens, they want to debate and dismiss the legislation as soon as possible. And PUP leader Clive Palmer says the plan is “wholly without merit.” Hard to see how the PUPs can walk away from that.

The NTEU is also upset that university staff and students did not get guernseys for the education department’s “secret meeting” yesterday. Gosh I wonder why irreconcilable opponents of the legislation were not invited to a briefing for universities on how the legislation will work.

Informed advice

La Trobe Vice Chancellor John Dewar, who took on the tough task of chairing the Legislation and Financing Working Party says he is pleased that the bill includes the group’s unanimous recommendation to fund non university higher education providers at 70 per cent of what universities receive per student place, given NUHEPs do not have research and community service roles. However he says other recommendations were not picked up, notably basing loan repayments on a 4 per cent interest rate below the threshold, with interest charged at the long term bond rate, capped at 6 per cent thereafter. The working party was also knocked back in suggesting other savings be found instead of charging students in the Research Training Scheme a 10 per cent contribution. Professor Dewar adds there were “strong divisions” in the group on the proposed scholarships scheme.

As to funding cuts for CSPs the working party recommended leaving the existing eight clusters with a 20 per cent across the board cut, “while noting this is not a universal view across the sector.” However the government believes that this would mean a “less efficient market, as existing clusters are not reflective of the relative costs of course delivery.” The bill sticks with the controversial plan to group disciplines into five tiers. 

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Detailed details

Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities group says the legislation is as per the budget but that the departmental briefing added intriguing issues. “The 70 per cent student funding rate for NUHEPs creates questions about terms for non-universities that provide contract services for universities.” He also points to the possibility of public funds being used to offset costs to students, “the relationship of controlling what student costs are HELP eligible, a valid government concern, to universities capacity to support students’ non tuition costs needs thought. … This is meant to be about deregulating fees.”

Praise for the providers

Meanwhile, in the world where they make the money that helps pay for all this, the short list for Victoria’s International Education Awards is announced. In the various institutional categories Deakin leads with four nominations, from Monash with three, and RMIT and the University of Melbourne two each. In contrast private and public trainers receive 13.

Don’t cut incompetents!”

On Saturday unionists from Southern Cross University will march against deregulation in Lismore, Ballina and Byron Bay plus Coffs Harbour as part of an all-issues protest. National Tertiary Education Union supporters will also use the opportunity to raise their other big issue – what they claim is bad management of SCU. Two issues which will be hard to combine in a chant.

 Applause for O’Kane

A conference in Auckland today is addressing the source of science advice to governments round the world, supported by a comprehensive background paper. I did not know, for example that there are some 40 plus Commonwealth science agencies – no wonder people want a minister. The report suggests that this can be a problem with fragmented input from all over. We are also underdone for social science advice. It also signals out NSW where the chief scientist is also chief engineer, a position now held by Mary O’Kane, who “has shaped a strategic reengagement between the NSW Government and its universities and the components of the State’s innovation system more generally. The universities and other research organisations are now considered central to government policy both in their own right and also as key delivery agents for productivity growth.” A model to emulate.

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