Deregulation Senate special: bravado, balls, bluff

Plus Stephen Parker warns what you can catch from Universities Australia

More to come

Labor left universities alone in Reps Question Time yesterday, leaving it Kevin Hogan (Nats-NSW) to ask Christopher Pyne to explain the many benefits of the higher education legislation before the Senate (below) – which Mr Pyne duly did. He added that on top of concessions yesterday morning “there may well be others”. He never gives up.

Senators neither shocked nor awed

Yesterday morning saw shock and awe according to the Pyne plan. Just minutes before the Senate commenced debate of deregulation the minister announced concessions to cover cross bench concerns.

For months Mr Pyne has less announced than proclaimed via flashing neon sign that he was prepared to drop a real interest rate on HELP loans so it was not much of a surprise when he did. Agreeing to Senator John Madigan’s idea for a moratorium on interest for parents of children from birth to age five will not endear the minister to Joe Hockey, but the treasurer does not have a seat in the Senate, which means Mr Pyne probably does nor care just now what he thinks. And the education minister’s promise to “target” scholarships to rural and regional students addresses a big issue for Senator Madigan, and his brother from the bush, Senator Muir. Promising that the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission will monitor fees and that the feds will fund an information campaign on how to recognise a good study deal are inconsequential but will not hurt.

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That was Mr Pyne’s offer and unsurprisingly the Senate was neither shocked nor awed. The debate that followed was predictable, as Tim Grainger pointed out, “imagine a drinking game based on every mention of $100 000 degrees, not even an hour of debate and everybody would be floored.” And players would have been incoherent if they slammed a shot every time a government senator mentioned vice chancellors support for deregulation. As for changing the tone and issues of the hour – some senators kept the bits about real interest rates in their speeches, demonstrating they either did not care or had not heard Mr Pyne’s proposal, unless of course, they just read out the text given by their staffers, who had no time for a rewrite.

It was not the coup de main Mr Pyne might have hoped for. It certainly did not have any impact on Jacqui Lambie. Last night in the Senate she compared the minister to “a dodgy used car salesman,” and said the legislation is designed to keep working class people in their place. I’m reading that as a no, not this week, not never.

UA asks for more

Thelma and Louise’s law holds you get what you settle for and Universities Australia chief Belinda Robinson is in no mood to accept what the government is offering. UA has long made the case for deregulating student fees but there are many other aspects of the Pyne package her members want changed. So instead of making the case for the government’s plan, on Sky News yesterday she was asking for more, arguing that Mr Pyne’s concessions yesterday “were significant” but not enough. In particular she called for something “significantly lower” than the proposed 20 per cent cut to Commonwealth funding for student places “as a pre-requisite.” And a $500m structural adjustment fund would be nice.

If there is a risk that anything other than explicit endorsement of the Pyne package gives Labor, Greens and cross bench senators the opportunity to argue that the case for change is confused, and vote accordingly, Ms Robinson obviously thinks it is worth taking. After all there are three more sitting days this year. “Our message to all senators this week is not to defer decisions and ignore the unique opportunity they have to shape a new, fairer higher education package this year,” she said.

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Fighting spirit

The Innovative Research Universities does not know what defeat looks like – thrice urging senators to back deregulation yesterday. At 11.30 the IRU issued an alert backing the government’s concessions. By 12.30 the group was so optimistic that it called on the Senate to not only endorse deregulation but also amend aspects of the Pyne package the IRU does not like (scholarships, structural adjustment, no cut to research student support or overall cut to Commonwealth funding per student). The IRU announced it all again an hour later just as Senator Deborah O’Neill (Labor, NSW) was explaining why deregulation would be a disaster. It doesn’t seem to have done any good but like UA you can’t fault the IRU for hanging tough.

Always on message

The National Tertiary Education Union was on message yesterday, whacking Pyne policy moles even when it was clear the government did not have the numbers in the Senate.Desperate tinkering around the edges by the Abbott Government is an admission of how unfair the government’s higher education proposals are. The government must dump these disastrous policies, and go back to the drawing board following full consultation with the higher education sector.” During which the union and its allies would demand what they always argue is the only solution for higher education problems, more public money.

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But what does he really think

For hardheaded criticism of the Pyne package no senator shined compared to University of Canberra Vice Chancellor Stephen Parker, the only VC whose opposition to deregulation is on the record. He addressed a rally at the University of Sydney yesterday where he repeated his oft expressed ire and also went after Universities Australia, which he said is committing “a strange form of ritual suicide.”

“ Whether it breaks up soon because the tensions are too great, or it survives until the interest group factions have no more use for it and spit it out, UA is doomed because it has lost its moral compass. I personally will not attend a further meeting of an organisation with necrotizing fasciitis; the condition where the body eats its own flesh.”

Other vice chancellors say Professor Parker has kept to himself and not seemed happy at UA meetings for a while. Understandably – this would be a crook condition to catch.

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What next

So what happens between now and when the Senate rises on Thursday night? Despite a general agreement that Mr Pyne does not have the numbers there is a Canberra consensus that his cause is not lost, that most, albeit certainly not all cross benchers are talking to supporters of reform. Trouble is, the ones who aren’t will decide the vote. Senators Lambie and Lazarus (hospitalised yesterday with a kidney problem) are generally agreed to be unequivocally opposed. There is debate whether Senator Wang will stick with his PUP colleague and Senator Lambie, or listen to private higher education providers in Perth and the University of Western Australia, whose work impresses him. And Senator Muir is not giving anything away, although his vote seems in play. Last night Senator Lambie urged him to consider his vote carefully. Optimists argue that while it may not happen this week, Mr Pyne will win the two votes from these four he must have by the first Senate sitting day next year, February 9. But pessimists suggest that after this week it may not matter what senators do, that the government will move on and leave higher education unchanged, but with less money. “The mid year economic statement will clear minds wonderfully,” one skilled stroller of the corridors of power said yesterday.

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