Deregulation round two: same arguments, same basic bill

The challenge for Universities Australia is to keep its members together

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“This policy is no more! It’s ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the Senate notice paper it’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘It’s metabolic processes are now history! It’s off the twig! It’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-policy.” “No it’s not; it’s just Pyning for the forward estimates.”

National Tertiary Education Union official Paul Kniest with the last word on Deregulation Mark One

Off we go, again

David Battersby (VC, Fed U) wrote what many felt yesterday. “After an intensive seven months preoccupation with reforms, now back to first base. Getting to a stage of reform by fatigue.” Not Christopher Pyne, who picked himself up, dusted himself off and started all over again a bare 12 hours after the Senate voted down Deregulation Mark One yesterday. Mr Pyne was out in the media first thing, making the case for reform and making light of Glenn Lazarus’s demand he should leave him alone. (Perhaps because Senator Lazarus on Fran Kelly described Mr Pyne “as a good minister and nice guy”.) And just before 11 am the minister was on his feet in the House of Representatives delivering the second reading speech for Dereg Mk II. While he was “naturally disappointed by (yesterday’s) outcome, following a sustained, baseless and irresponsible campaign” against the defeated legislation “the new bill preserves its essential elements,” Mr Pyne said. It also includes concessions to the cross bench, notably the universally anticipated commitment to retaining CPI as the interest rate on student debts, as well as Senator Madigan’s (Independent-Victoria) proposal for a moratorium on debt indexation for the primary care giver of a child under five. Structural adjust money is also included. Plus there is a guarantee that domestic course fees will be less than those charged international students. The minister added he was “open to further negotiations on the details of the bill (which) has the same objectives as its predecessor – to allow the Australian education system to be the best in the world.”

That Mr Pyne assured the House, “the bill does not contain any tricks,” will not stop the Opposition and its allies looking for them.

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 Can you hear me Commander Chris?

Swinburne University reports astronomer Barbara Catinella and colleagues have detected a gas signal from a galaxy three billion light years from earth. I wonder what life forms there will make of Mr Pyne’s text messages when they finally get there.

Sticking to the script

The National Tertiary Education Union was also up early, with the same message that won the first round of this fight. “Yet again, the Abbott Government has ignored the public, university staff, students and their families in refusing to dump their unfair university changes. Instead, it has cobbled together a shopping list in a bid to savagely cut public investment in our universities and allow the cost of some degrees to rise to over $100,000.” Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek (Labor-NSW) led Question Time yesterday asking Mr Pyne why he was so keen on such expensive degrees. Amanda Rishworth (SA-NSW) followed, twice. And then Ms Plibersek had another go. Having worked once the $100,000 degree claim will likely work again – unless Mr Pyne and his allies can refocus the debate on university funding. That the minister convinced senators Muir and Madigan to vote for the first bill yesterday, and is said to have made progress with Senator Wang, demonstrates it can be done. If Senator Xenophon wants Pyne-free peace over Christmas he should turn his phone off now.

Fuelling the rumour mill

It’s business as usual at Murdoch University where people with lips sewn are suspected of talking too much. I called the other day to inquire whether Provost Ann Capling remains on leave and whether the inquiry into allegations involving her is complete. The university replied; “Professor Capling returned to work after personal leave. Professor Capling remains the subject of investigation into misconduct by the university, and this continuing process is confidential.” Talk about energy efficiency – so few words powering so many rumours.

Will the UA coalition hold

The Regional Universities Network supported the new bill yesterday, “ (it) shows that many of the issues raised by RUN have been listened to by the Senate and government (it) is a big step in the right direction and we acknowledge the efforts of the cross bench senators and the government in progressing this. It is not in the interest of students or universities to continue to let this issue drag on,” RUN chair Peter Lee said yesterday. But given Mr Pyne said he was “open to further negotiations” on the new bill Universities Australia renewed its demands. Yes the new bill “is heading in the right direction. We particularly thank and acknowledge the significant contribution made by the cross benchers,” Universities Chief Belinda Robinson said. But the destination it had to reach was the government delivering “relief” on the 20 per cent funding cut, an increase in the structural adjustment fund to $500m and a panel of wise persons to oversee the changes. University of Sydney VC Michael Spence was even less enthusiastic, “the new bill reflects some of the concerns the University – and many of our staff and students – had expressed about the proposals, including the affordability of the student loan scheme. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Which raises the big question will UA be able to hold the line, so that all VCs (except Stephen Parker) publicly endorse, or at least do not denounce, deregulation Mark II. Mr Pyne will hope so – indeed so will UA. If universities start to break ranks the new bill will be even harder to pass.

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Much more than money

I know I risk Glenn Lazarus never responding to an SMS but the PUP senate leader was flat wrong when he said that deregulation is just about budget cuts – because as the Mk2 bill makes clear, after $3.5bn in concessions there are savings over the forward estimates of just $450m – a chunk of change to be sure but hardly a budget balancer. The explanatory memorandum suggests $5bn savings over ten years – but for the out years such estimates are based more on astrology than accountancy.

Practical professionals

Medical research lobbies are in a flap over the fate of their future fund, pointing to all the diseases they could cure if the government simply gave them the promised $20bn. There is one small thing getting in the way of this happening – reality. I am sure Treasurer Joe Hockey has checked in all his suits and under the lounge without coming up with the cash.

Meanwhile, supporters of applied research are methodically marshaling their forces beneath the “Impact” and “Industry Links” banners of Industry Minister Ian “Batman” Macfarlane and Chief Scientist Ian “Bloke Wonder” Chubb. Yesterday engineer, scientist and manager lobby Professions Australia announced “it is calling on our political leaders to back the chief scientist’s national science and research strategy – for a stronger, smarter Australia.”

And PA could have been taking notes from a speech by Minister Macfarlane by writing; “when industry and researchers work together effectively we innovate and multiply our strengths. We must ensure there are clear and reliable policy incentives that facilitate deep and sustained collaboration between industry, public sector, university and research institutes.”

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Yes there are the usual demands for more money but overall the brief is on-song with the dynamic duo’s argument that funding is most important in areas where Australia is strong, in PA’s judgement health, environment, agriculture and defence.

And meanwhile scientists working on problems that may, or many not, turn out to be useful stay silent in the dreaming spires. Certainly the Group of Eight produced an impassioned defence of pure research a fortnight back but that’s about it. This isn’t smart, the way things are going the first thing unapplied researchers will know that times have changed will be when they are given a form to fill out on business contacts and commercial sales.

Just the facts

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research just sets out the stats without comment – which is wise, given the numbers are not always excellent. This year “77.6% of (VET) graduates were employed after training, similar to 2013,’’ the NCVER reports. Of the balance 13 per cent were unemployed. Ye gods – this is twice the community-wide unemployment rate. And that is the goodish-news, of VET graduates who were unemployed before study only 44 per cent were in work after completing their course, down 6 per cent over the decade.

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California dreaming

Talk of a plan to create teaching and research campuses in Tasmania was lost in the rhetorical fog on Tuesday and the University of Tasmania did not respond to a request for comment yesterday. However it seems the idea is to teach at Burnie and Launceston and research at Hobart. While paying for the plan might be a touch tricky just now a Tas State network (presumably including VET plus pathways) separate from the University of Tasmania is an intriguing idea – it works in California.

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