Senate rejects Pyne package

Plus news from outside the chamber of horrors

 Here we go again

Christopher Pyne’s higher education deregulation legislation was defeated in the Senate yesterday evening following an extraordinary day of insults and amendments. In the end senators Day, Leyonhjelm, Madigan and Muir voted with the government, leaving the minister two short.

Mr Pyne immediately promised to introduce a new bill in the House of Representatives today for consideration by the Senate in the New Year. He foreshadowed deregulation mark two will include the existing proposal for 80 000 pathway places, plus a commitment to keeping HECS at the CPI and he backed Senator Madigan’s proposal for a five year loan moratorium for new parents, as well as a university transition fund and rural and low SES scholarships, “of keen interest to Senator Ricky Muir”.

But the new bill will be shaped by the concerns of a senator who voted against deregulation yesterday, Nick Xenophon. Speaking in the chamber yesterday Senator Xenophon made it plain that he is ambivalent, at best, about a market in education but he also acknowledged the role of private providers, suggested even more debate on funding was needed and added that Labor should offer some ideas. And he raised the spectre haunting every argument over deregulation – demand driven funding. Is it sustainable in the long term, Senator Xenophon wanted to know. This will be the issue that drives deregulation debate two – and the question Senator Xenophon wants answered is, if everybody wants open university access who will pay for it.

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Nothing doing

Abbott’s law of negotiating with Tasmanians is that when in doubt offer them anything. The prime minister tried it while trying to put together a parliamentary majority in 2010, when he suggested to the new independent member for Denison Andrew Wilkie, that Hobart hospital could do with a $1bn spruce-up. It did not work then and a big offer did not work yesterday when Tasmanian Liberal MPs floated the idea of $400m – for very necessary work of course – at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Launceston and, what a surprise, Senator Jacqui Lambie’s hometown of Burnie. But as Sarah Martin reported in The Australian, Senator Lambie said no.

Lazarus lets loose

Glenn Lazarus is not a bloke to annoy. Rather than just saying no to Chris Pyne’s attempts to talk him round on the deregulation legislation the PUP senator represented Mr Pyne as a pest in a spray of a statement yesterday.

Christopher Pyne is embarrassing himself and needs to stop harassing me and other cross benchers. I am being inundated with text messages from Christopher Pyne virtually begging me to support the Abbott Government’s higher education reforms. … I won’t be bought and I am not prepared to horse trade.”

Everybody clear on that? But in case some of us weren’t Senator Lazarus made a frank point even franker in his second reading speech on the bill yesterday. “No amount of texting, chocolates or red roses from Christopher Pyne will change my mind.” Senator Lazarus added that neither he nor his PUP colleague Senator Wang would support a bill “which was bad to the core” and there was no point in considering amendments to the bill because the bill was “about nothing more than budget cuts.”

Senator Lazarus added that his position “reflects the will of the people of Queensland,” including university communities there.

Round two

Mr Pyne lost the politics in round one and he will lose round two unless he can neutralise the “$100, 000 degree debt sentence” argument. Once this became a community concern there was no hope of focusing the debate on how to fund universities. The National Tertiary Education Union drank from the keg of glory last night – its leaders shaped the argument Labor and the Greens used to convince the community, which in turn influenced cross bench senators. But it will be a poisoned chalice for Labor, if as Senator Xenophon suggests the Opposition has to come up with its own funding proposals. The choices are as dire as they were in the hour before Mr Pyne’s plan was revealed on budget night – the government pays more for post school education and/or students pays more. If neither occurs the quality of education erodes.

First hit

Glenn Lazarus was on Fran Kelly this morning making it clear that while Mr Pyne is a “good minister and a nice guy” if the new bill includes funding cuts and deregulation of fees he will not vote for it.

Food for thought

The Country Education Foundation is asking MPs for their favourite student days recipe, to publish in the new edition of its University Survival Guide for Rural and Regional Students. It will be interesting to see who provides what. published. That’s it – I know you expect me to mention Chris Pyne’s recipe for humble pie, but I won’t.

Inequity is the norm

Last night University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington spelt out where the defeat of deregulation leaves universities like his.

“Those who opposed the reform failed to offer any real alternative, leaving in place a funding system unsustainable in the long term, so long as taxpayers are not prepared to massively increase their contribution to university funding. In the price-regulated system, the only way universities can deal with rising costs is to enroll more and more students. Classes get bigger and bigger, and the education more and more impersonal. Cost cutting is not the answer—most universities have already cut costs to the bone.

“And no-one should think the current system is fair for students. Some pay 400 per cent of the cost of their education, others just 8 per cent. In universities like mine, the law and business students subsidise the medical and dental students. The inequity is breathtaking.

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Meanwhile, where the rest of us live

Bad timing

Perhaps the day when the Whitlamite vision of publicly funded higher education triumphed was not the best for the Menzies Foundation to announce it will sponsor a new category of the schools National History Challenge, on the legacy of R G Menzies. Teachers around the country will have sent students to look him up in Manning Clark.

Like drawing teeth

No, not the Senate negotiations but the tender to run the public dental service in South Australia – which the University of Adelaide won yesterday. But not without a fight it did not originally expect. Uni Adelaide has the only dental school in the state and has long staffed the state government’s public clinic, where students learned the dark dental arts while providing a community service. But the existing facility is out of date and the university hoped the state government would help pay for a replacement in the massive new Royal Adelaide Hospital medical research complex, where the university dental school is moving. To which the state government replied nothing doing and opened the clinic contract to tender. At which point, what a surprise, the University of South Australia got into the game. In the end U of A won and the new 90-chair clinic will open in flash new dental digs in 2017.

This was a deal Uni Adelaide had to win and why it was willing to allocate three floors of its new facilities and pay for the fit-out. Without the clinic its dental school would have disintegrated with staff moving to Uni SA, which would have used the win as the basis for its own dentistry programme. State health minister Jack Snelling has also done well with Uni Adelaide meeting the $54m cost. The contract will run for 30 years

Governing goes on

As Christopher Pyne was slugging it out for Senate votes ever since the budget Industry Minister Ian “Batman” Macfarlane and his sidekick Chief Scientist Ian “Bloke wonder” Chubb were methodically taking control of the national research agenda. Mr Macfarlane likes applied research and wants to see industry and academics work together much more than in the past. And the Chief Scientist is happy to help.

Six months ago Professor Chubb was making the case for a national science strategy adding, “my role is to provide government with a mechanism to invest in the right way, (CMM June 3).

Then in August he set out a four-point plan for research, including providing public money for private sector programs and emphasising applied research, “we can and should align focus and scale” (CMM August 14).

In a speech to the Australian Research Management Society (CMM September 19) he spelt out his thinking; “we need to find areas where we have a critical need or comparative advantage; where we have capability and a capacity to make a difference. Then we need to support and fund those areas as best as possible. This is not about following fads or current trends – researching areas just because they’re famous or popular. It’s about having a framework that allows one to make the decisions that will have to be made in an informed and intelligent way.”

He added that this approach “certainly isn’t about shutting out basic and curiosity driven research. If we exclusively fund marketable applied research, we’ll soon find ourselves running out of fundamental science to apply.”

Science-stars

By October Professor Chubb was writing in the Fin that critics of the government investing research money in areas where Australia has a comparative advantage ignore the obvious, that when resources are limited, “somebody, somewhere may have to select where to invest.”

And on Monday the Chief Scientist released a comprehensive study of Australia’s STEM research performance, demonstrating in detail his oft made argument that while the country does well for research quality and output on global comparisons, when measured against North America and Western Europe, not so much. “This overall performance means we have no room for complacency. Nor can we let STEM drift. We must distribute resources carefully and strategically—just like most other countries.”

Now that Professor Chubb is a member of the Commonwealth Science Council and chairs the subordinate officials committee surely he is the “somebody” who can help the government select where to invest research funding.

I wonder what Education Minister Pyne would think if he was not otherwise occupied, or how Health Minister Dutton sees this sitting with the Medical Research Future Fund (assuming it is still on the agenda after Christmas.)

Happier New Year

IT developer NICTA was spruiking a Sydney visit by NSW Premier Mike Baird yesterday and no, he was not there to see if he could pick up some office furniture cheap, following Canberra funding cuts. NICTA says it expects “certainty” about its new funding model early in the New Year.

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 Cracking the code

The Commonwealth Bank has donated $1m per annum for five years to the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Quantum Computation, which Michelle Simmons and colleagues will use on projects beyond the capacity of the university’s PR people to explain, thus “to demonstrate entanglement in a scalable silicon based quantum computing architecture and then to coherently transport quantum information to create ‘flying qubits’ within the computer.” Everybody clear on that? As far as I can follow this is about increasing the time that information can be held on an individual atom. This would increase computing power by factors now impossible, almost unimaginable, and revolutionise science that needs to mimic nature – by crunching vast amounts of data – like drug design. A quantum computer might also create unbreakable codes, which would be useful in, well banking.

 Where it hurts

“Anxiety and insecurity may lead to headaches,” Murdoch University research has found. What, like the anxiety accompanying losing a VC following misconduct allegations and having other senior staff investigated, plus the insecurity that occurs when the chancellor suggests staff who don’t agree with the university strategy should leave?

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