Pyne in poll position for fees push

Printing money

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Pyne prevailing

Universities are carefully, cautiously starting to respond to Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s London speech. ” ‘Market forces’ ” in higher education operate very differently in regional Australia cf metro Aus. Let’s recognise this in public policy.” David Battersby, VC of Federation University says. And the Australian Technology Network has decided to endorse what it considers imminent reality on deregulated student fees. “Even to the ATN, which has been reluctant to support fee deregulation as a solution, some form of deregulating appears to be the only logical option now that uncapped student numbers appears to be set in concrete and the money is not there to fund them,” Executive Director Vicki Thomson writes.

The Regional Universities Network yesterday took a similar stance, reluctantly, nervously, acknowledging there is a case for students paying more. “Given the current funding climate, RUN is open to robust discussion of fee deregulation in a broader context of university funding, including research and regional loading funding. If there is fee deregulation, there should also be support, including scholarships, to ensure the continued growth in the participation of low SES students in higher education,” chair Peter Lee said.

This fight is starting to look like it is over before Mr Pyne has fired a shot. But not if Kim Carr can help it, “Labor will not raise the white flag on uni fees or cuts,” he tweeted last night. Good-oh but right now it looks like a lonely stand.

Longer and slower than Blue Hills

Enterprise bargaining at Swinburne University is like Blue Hills, only slower. After a year of intemperate negotiations the university finally lost patience with the local National Tertiary Education Union and took a proposal direct to staff at the end of February, which was endorsed albeit not by much. The union responded by challenging the validity of the vote and Fair Work Australia agreed to consider the complaint. This pushed the new deal, and accompanying pay rise out by weeks, but now the university says there is more union legal manoeuvring which means the matter will not come before FWA until after the budget. The union argues that the electoral roll was tainted by the presence of previous sessional staff who should not have received voting papers. Whatever the strength of this case the university’s Andrew Smith says delaying the deal is a dangerous strategy, as he explained to staff yesterday. “Across Australia, a number of universities which have not yet concluded agreements with their staff will be looking to hold off final negotiations until after the federal budget. It is not inconceivable that salary offers made after May at those universities will be lower than the annual 3.1% increases which form the basis of the enterprise agreement that Swinburne staff voted for.” And in case anybody missed the implicit threat he made it at an explicit promise, “if the NTEU is successful in blocking approval of your agreement, the university will need to reconsider its position in light of the federal budget and any impact on the university’s financial position.”

This is not the most convincing of threats – yes the feds could legislate to lower grant indexation (which the universities rely on to fund pay rises) but allowing those with new agreements signed to keep the rise while cutting the amount of money for Swinburne (and the other universities which have not settled) would be unreasonable, to say the least. Of course Canberra could cut other funding by an equal amount but the NTEU national leadership would not permit the saga at Swinburne to continue if they expected this. Even so, what Swinburne is offering is not so far out of whack with the rest of the system that it merits such an almighty blue.

What’s in a name

A close Chris Pyne observer (the closest) points to what might be a policy pointer, unless it is just inadequate editing, in the minister’s London speech. “We want the freest, most diverse and most rigorous university system in the world. In other words, we want the best,” the minister said. Good-oh but he also said   “I can assure you unreservedly that the Coalition government will continue to take steps to set higher education providers free, provide them with more autonomy, and challenge them to map out their futures according to their strengths.” We know providers and universities are not necessarily the same but some it seems will be differently accountable than others. Things might be looking up for TEQSA.

Smith to UWA

Labor cabinet minister Stephen Smith will return to the University of Western Australia, where he studied law, as Winthrop Professor of International Law. Mr Smith was variously defence and foreign affairs minister in Rudd and Gillard governments. He follows former colleagues who have taken up academic appointments, Julia Gillard at the University of Adelaide, Nicola Roxon at Victoria University, Bob Carr at just about all in inner-Sydney campuses and Kevin Rudd at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale (when his UN duties allow). All right I made that bit up, but I bet you thought for a moment I was serious.

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