Plus debate will not end when the svelte senators sing

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Young to leave ANU

Australian National University VC Ian Young will retire from front-line leadership when his term concludes a year from now. He will return to research, at Swinburne University where he is a previous VC. Professor Young said yesterday his decision had nothing to do with the state of the deregulation debate. “The higher education reforms will roll out as the Senate sees fit,” he told me.

In assessing his four years to date at ANU, Professor Young said while “change is never easy” he is happy with what he has achieved at ANU, “all the basic indicators are solid for us.” However he warned that it, with other research-intensive universities “face a challenge to perform when they don’t have growth in research funding.”

ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans said Professor Young “will be a hard act to follow. He has a clear sense of strategic direction, is good at public policy and an astonishingly hard worker.” Professor Evans pointed to the $50m Tuckwell Scholarships, which award merit based living allowances to ANU undergraduates, as one of Professor Young’s notable achievements.

Professor Young had a shaky start at ANU with an immensely unpopular and poorly presented restructure of the university’s music school but he settled in quickly, convincing the university community that an administrative restructure with staff retrenchments was essential. As head of the Group of Eight he is a calm, cogent and courteous advocate of deregulation, always willing to make his case to hostile audiences, be they senators or students. Yesterday University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis remembered Young sitting “outside the steps of the ANU Chancellery on hot afternoons to speak with students directly about their concerns around the changes in higher education.”

The vice chancellor said he plans to research and teach in Swinburne’s Centre for Ocean Engineering, Science and Technology. Professor Young continued an active research programme while vice chancellor, publishing 11 research papers in the last four years.

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 Same old speeches

The Pyne Package MkII is down for debate in the House of Representatives from noon on Tuesday. The programme allocates just 90 minutes for speakers, which should be plenty of time, what with everybody having heard it all before.

Mysterious Murdoch

Given secrecy provisions nobody knows the state of the Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission investigation into former Murdoch University vice chancellor Richard Higgott. As to university inquiries into Provost Ann Capling and up to three other senior staff, nobody at Murdoch will comment. So perhaps I should not have been surprised when I called the university to confirm that HR Director Karen Lamont had left and received this reply from a comms officer, “I can confirm that Karen has retired from the university, but given this is a personal decision it is not appropriate for the university to comment further.”

Never ending argument

Christopher Pyne is the minister from central casting who delivers what the pundits prefer; policy piled on policy. You don’t have to admire or agree with his plan to deregulate undergraduate fees to acknowledge his extraordinary efforts to sell the plan. But last night the consensus among close observers of the debate was that if the Senate was voting today the package would not pass.

In part this is due to bad luck – there is nothing Mr Pyne can do about the balance of power in the upper house. In part it is due to the realities of reform – when the self-perceived losers are concentrated in vocal interests groups and the winners diffuse a policy change is hard to sell. In part it is also due to terrible timing. In a week when the minister and as many colleagues who are willing should be out selling the package – in the media, to senators, out in electorates – the Liberal leadership issue has sucked all the energy out of government. Mr Pyne is always on message, you can ask him about surfing in South Australia and he will talk about higher education but yesterday he could not move the media away from the fate of the prime minister. He did not even try in a big TV interview.

It is too early for autopsies – it’s not over until the svelte senators sing, which will be in March. But if the upper house does vote down Pyne MKII critics will say that it was because he ambushed the electorate with the plan in the 2014 budget. They will have a point. The year before Tony Abbott had promised universities no surprises if the coalition won the election and as Andrew Robb said yesterday “surprise” policies in health and education were a mistake.

But Mr Pyne was delivering university leaderships what they wanted and as for arguing that the government should have fought the election on deregulating student fees the brutal truth is the electorate does not care about universities enough to make it a major election issue.

So what happens if Mr Pyne cannot round up enough votes? Optimists argue deregulation is inevitable, but will take a couple of goes to sell the idea. Pessimists suggest that the defeat will be so scarring that no minister will dare do anything lest they cop a career-limiting beating by empowered activists.

But you can bet the reform debate will roll on. Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott will launch Peter Noonan‘s, Towards an Entitlement Model for Tertiary Education in Australia in a couple of weeks. Question is how long will it be before a minister is again game to prose a plan, any plan?

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Meanwhile in a galaxy far, far away

The lab coat lobby is still pushing for the Medical Research Future Fund. The MRFF? Oh come-on, you remember the MRFF – it was announced in the last budget and was supposed to create $20bn in capital via Medicare co-payments. Since the Senate knocked that off the government has talked of a more modest investment but even that does not appear to be going anywhere. But last week the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute hosted Senator John Madigan and yesterday WEHI chief and Association of Medical Research Institutes director Doug Hilton visited Senator Ricky Muir to explain why we need the fund. Can’t hurt, but while the senators are crucial to the fate of the Pyne package there are more in a position to stop rather than start policy.