The devil is in the interest rate detail

Pyne works his magic

Christopher Pyne put in a vintage performance with Alan Jones on radio yesterday. The minister talked about why his plan to deregulate the system would work.

“I’ve been very publicly out there campaigning and talking since the budget about the fact that we’re increasing spending on higher education and school funding but, more important, we’re reforming higher education to give 80,000 more young people from low socioeconomic status the opportunity to go to university, the biggest Commonwealth Scholarships fund in Australian history so the smartest kids can go to the best universities in Australia, expanding higher education to private providers so that they can compete with the universities and push prices down – these are the biggest reforms in 30 years in universities and they will transform the ability of our unis to compete with the Asian competitors who are coming at us in the rear vision mirror very fast.”

And he sent western Sydney MPs a clear message that they should not be bothered by UWS VC Barney Glover’s call to delay deregulation.

“I’m going to work very closely with the vice-chancellors, including Barney Glover … the University of Western Sydney’s going to be a big winner from these reforms because they are a university that has a lot of these sub-bachelor courses – in other words, these diplomas and associate degrees that first generation university-goers and low socioeconomic status students use to get into university and get the training they need to then pass a bachelor degree.”

Nor does the Minister think opposition to his plans means they are defeated already “Alan, there’s always more than one way to skin a cat.”

That’s Mr Pyne for you – always polished, always on message. But was the effort wasted with Mr Jones’s largely elderly audience, many of whom will think HELP is a Beatles song and HECs a sort of spell? Who knows? But I bet they liked it better than the TV vision of student protests in the afternoon.

But is hexed on Adelaide’s airwaves

Mr Pyne did not do so well in his regular spot with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan on ABC radio in Adelaide, as he tried to work through the debt issue, which is becoming the government’s weak point in the fee deregulation debate. The minister made the point that students already enrolled in a course are exempt, because the new regime does not kick in until 2016, but forgot to mention that the grandfathering continues until 2020. And he added students did not have to repay their debt until they earn $50 000 a year when average weekly earnings are $32 000. Um, not quite, it’s the minimum wage that is $32 000, AWE is around $72 000. The minister was right to say the Commission of Audit proposed dropping the payment threshold to $32,000 – but I doubt he will get many points for this. Nor did the Prime Minister help when he said students will finish under the funding system they start in. Not quite either, people who commence a degree next year will be liable for a deregulated fee set by their university from 2016. Replacing the CPI with the bond rate to set interest under the new system is also biting. My guess is changing this will be a cat that Mr Pyne ends up skinning.

Is this a first?

His Erudition, Bob “three chairs Carr has graciously visited a NSW university where he is not a professor! Mr Carr was at the University of New England to promote his book about being foreign minister.

Even winners are ambivalent

The support base for deregulation is unravelling with Group of Eight vice chancellors expressing ambivalence. Yesterday the University of Sydney’s Michael Spence wrote to staff warning that while the university’s position on how, or whether, to increase students fees the reduction in federal funding meant Sydney would take a hit, with the arts faculty losing $10m as well as losing “$5000 per student per year in engineering, environmental sciences, communications, and science courses.” However Dr Spence added, “a University of Sydney education should be attainable for the most promising students, whatever their social or cultural background. While the government’s proposed scholarship regime is a partial response to this imperative, I remain concerned about the impact of any changes on low-income and, indeed, middle-income families. ”  Dr Spence’s Go8 colleague, the University of Adelaide’s Warren Bebbington is also alarmed, specifically by the Government’s intention to change to the HELP loan interest charge from the CPI to the bond rate. Professor Bebbington has supported deregulation as a way to match the innovation of US higher education but not its student debt. As  he told staff yesterday, “my interest in these reforms was to see Australian students in the coming years have a much wider choice of the types of degrees as found in the US—but without the US burden of crippling student debts.  In fact, it is starting to look as if the student debt burden for many under the proposed reforms might well be worse than in the US.  Deregulation would become mis-regulation.”


Protest too far away

The Prime Minister and Education Minister cancelled on an event at Deakin University yesterday because of police concerns, and to avoid giving protesting students media exposure, Mr Abbott said in one interview. Tough on Deakin because the pair were supposed to be there for the opening of the university’s carbon fibre research centre, billed as good news for Geelong’s eroding manufacturing base. According to the university the launch went ahead without protests, which seems strange. Granted Messrs Abbott and Pyne were not there but Victoria’s Liberal premier, Dennis Napthine was, as well as local federal Liberal MP Sarah Henderson (Corangamite) and state Liberal Andrew Katos (South Barwon) – and surely they could have all been heckled. After all, Sophie Mirabella copped a huge serve at Melbourne University last week and she isn’t even an MP anymore. Perhaps Geelong is a protest too far away without Mr Pyne and the PM to attract cameras.

Who finally finished

The snappily titled “Completion Rates of Domestic Bachelor Students: A Cohort Analysis,” for the cohort commencing in 2005 is on the Department of Education website. According to an analysis by the director of the university statistics section Yew May Martin it shows that by 2012 the overall completion rate was 72.3 per cent. Women did marginally better (74.3 per cent) and full time students were further in front (77.7 per cent). High ATAR students were way ahead (93.8 per cent), although this my not prove anything as there is a rank for only 35 per cent of the cohort. However  that NESB background (77.7 per cent) beat high SES (76.5 per cent) is interesting. According to one analyst, as we debate all but open entry and at what price, “there are data points here to suit most arguments.”

Med school plan on life support 

Lobbyists generally concede defeat after lobbying hard for a project and being completely ignored in the budget. But not Charles Sturt University, where they never give up. The university’s proposal (with La Trobe) for the Murray Darling Medical School did not get up last week but Chancellor Lawrie Willett says all will be well. “We just happen to find ourselves in a budget situation. The government calls it a crisis, there are others who say it’s not necessarily a crisis,” he told the Border Mail. Maybe there will be  a better “budget situation” next year.

Consensus confounded

Oh to be sitting up the back when Minister Pyne’s legislation and finance working advisory group meets to discuss deregulating student fees. Because its vice chancellor members are not as one. Ian Young (ANU) was an early endorser of the budget’s fee deregulation plan . But Peter Rathjen (Uni Tasmania) worries it will “likely to cause hardship” in his state. As to a 2016 start Barney Glover (UWS) is counselling delay. Deborah Terry  (Curtin) is not talking, but perhaps her views will be known after a staff forum on the budget next Wednesday. David Battersby (FUA) expressed concern last week, “as more detail emerges about changes to uni funding arising from the budget, the more detail we get about the concerns and downsides.” I wonder whether he will adopt the regional university lobby’s position that a delay is in order “to give universities and the government more time to work out the details of implementation.” The other members of the advisory group, Claire Field (private providers) Martin Riordan (TAFE) and Rufus Black (University of Melbourne ethics academic), might get into the fight or their own agendas might mean they let the VCs slug it out.

It will be down to chair John Dewar to keep the peace and hammer out an agreement on what to say to Mr Pyne. The La Trobe VC is the man to do it, demonstrated by his endless patience in managing his restructure plans for the university. It’s a good thing he is used to being in a position where he makes nobody happy.

Casual but not relaxed

Jeannie Rea from the National Tertiary Education Union spoke at a conference yesterday for people forgotten in the present debate  – the 50 per cent plus of all university workers, academic and professional staff both who are casuals or employed on fixed term contracts. Between 2005 and 2012 some 84 per cent of academic appointments were fixed term.