While the McKenzie Committee is careful

The Senate committee inquiring into the deregulation legislation chaired by Bridget McKenzie tabled its report last night. Does it include the basis of a deal Chris Pyne will want and Clive Palmer will buy?

Nails it

Buried in the report is the reason why the government has lost the popular debate to date, which could well lead to the legislation’s defeat. “The committee is sensitive to community concern about fee increases. However, ascertaining whether this bill would indeed have the effect of driving up prices is not served by scaremongering. Concerted campaigns against these reforms have skewed the public debate and done the community a great disservice.” Or a big favour if you believe that student fees will rise and rise if the package passes. The legislation was in trouble when the popular debate stopped being about funding universities and started being about slugging students. Is it a realistic fear? Not if you believe a market in undergraduate places will work like a market – but this message is not getting through.

The committee’s proposal

The committee makes four modest recommendations.

First, that the proposed scholarship scheme, acknowledge and to some extent address specific needs of regional and low SES students. “Given that guidelines for eligibility for the scholarship scheme are yet to be released, the committee is of the view that scope exists for them to be weighted towards assisting students living away from home.” This seems short of the national pool of scholarship funds which would transfer money from city to country campuses which was pushed hard.

Second it calls for a structural adjustment package – which regional universities argued strongly for.

Third, as all but universally anticipated, the committee urges the government “to explore the viability” of the Bruce ChapmanTimothy Higgins proposal which urges the government replace the Commonwealth borrowing rate for HELP debt with a fee plus CPI.

Fourth and the report calls on the government to collect student debt from people now living overseas.

That’s not quite it. The committee also suggests a campaign to sell the package and it proposes deregulating medical school places, which makes policy sense but would upset the doctor lobby.

But on the main points will it be enough to sway cross bench senators? Not if they listen to the National Tertiary Education Union, “the core issue has been ignored. The government wants to abrogate their role to fund a high quality, public and accessible higher education. Instead, universities will be left to fund the investment shortfall by charging students higher fees and leaving them with decades of debt to repay,” president Jeannie Rea said last night.


The Labor minority report extends Senator Kim Carr‘s case against reform, expressed in committee hearings. It is immensely detailed and makes a strong policy case against change, but at its heart is a proposition with popular, if not policy appeal.  “There is nothing at the heart of this package that will assist universities to maintain their competitive edge in international education, to enhance research excellence, or to deal with economic and societal changes. The twin motivations seem to be the need to justify a massive cut in higher education investment and an ideological obsession with privatisation. The legislation will continue to propel Australian society down the American route: the low road of increasing inequality of access, opportunity and outcomes that the Australian people neither need nor want.”

Senator Lee Rhiannon for The Greens focused on fees; “not a single witness agreed with the minister’s proposition that university fees would go down as a result of deregulation. Given that university vice-chancellors are viewing fee deregulation as a tool to boost revenue, it is obvious that fees will increase across the board if this bill is passed by Parliament.

Last night Universities Australia called the majority report, “a solid step in the right direction for making the package fairer for students and their families.” UA urged the government to go further and reduce the proposed cut in government funding for student places thus, “relieving upward pressure on fees.” And the Regional Universities Network endorsed the report, saying the “findings of the committee in large part support the changes that RUN has been advocating.” This is important, given crucial cross benchers, notably Glenn Lazarus, John Madigan and Ricky Muir, are interested in what works in the regions

As for the government, last night a spokesperson for Minister Pyne said, “the government welcomes the report and the constructive suggestions it makes about the reform package.”

The PUPs aren’t playing

With friends like this …

Clive Palmer (ABC radio yesterday) explains why VCs advocate deregulation, “this extra money will allow them to increase their salaries and employ more academics on tenure that is what this is all about – it’s about being open to the highest bidder.” I wonder if all the opponents of deregulation will now be pleased with Mr Palmer.


Clive cruels it, Bill claims it

Yesterday started well for VCs and lobbyists advocating reform as they repeated familiar lines in print and broadcast media – deregulation is essential to give universities the chance to charge fees that will repair the damage done by government cuts (but could the feds also cut less, please?).

But it went very bad very fast. PUP leader Clive Palmer appeared on Radio National before 8am and made it perfectly plain that his three Senate colleagues, and their mate Senator Ricky Muir, will vote against deregulation. There were no ifs about scholarships no buts about assistance for the regions – it was a flat rejection of the Pyne package.

So that should be that – with those four joining Labor and the Greens deregulation is deceased.

Which did not publicly perturb Mr Pyne. When asked what next the minister’s office replied, “the government will continue discussions with the cross benchers on the reform package … at stake is whether a viable higher education system can endure.”

But Mr Palmer’s statement appeared to encourage Labor leader Bill Shorten, who had gone quiet on the Pyne package in the last couple of weeks. Not yesterday – “the nation is relying on Labor to stop these bad moves,” he said. “Today we’ve launched Labor’s campaign against Tony Abbott’s $100 000 degrees,” adding “a degree should not be a debt sentence.” And then in Question Time Mr Shorten applied Mortein’s Law, -when you are on a good thing, stick to it. He asked the prime minister if the government planned to impose an increased GST on university fees – a long but given the issue of the day, predictable bow.

It was an enthusiastic effort but as for Labor leading the campaign against deregulation, Kim Carr aside, it was the National Tertiary Education Union and sundry student associations and academic activists who successfully sold the public on the idea that all sorts of degrees will cost $100 000. And while Mr Shorten thundered against deregulation yesterday the rhetorical lightening was less than previous. In his second reading speech on the deregulation legislation Mr Shorten told the House of Representatives, “today on behalf of Labor, I give the Australian people this promise. At the next election, when you look for the how-to-vote cards of the competing parties, you will have competing visions of higher education. Labor will make the next election a competition for the best university policy. … We will make the next election a higher education election.” But yesterday Mr Shorten told the Labor caucus, “higher education will be one of the big issues at the next federal election. … And we should not wait two years to run on one of the big issues of the next election. From “a higher education election” to “one of the big issues at the … election” is a small, but significant difference, I’m guessing that if The Leader thinks he can win the next poll he will not want the need to fund growth in the demand driven funding system without increased student fees on his plate.

Dreaming or dealing

Yesterday Christopher Pyne took his standard dorothy dixer in Reps Question Time, about the benefits of deregulation with his customary élan, explaining how everybody who knows anything about higher education backs change. For a start, “we must get more money into the university system and taxpayers cannot be squeezed anymore.” What’s more, “working with the Senate crossbench and the PUP we will be able to allow thousands of young Australians to go to university for the first time.” Um, working with the PUPs seems unlikely this morning but Mr Pyne has no choice to keep on going. So what happens now? Assuming, as seems certain, the legislation fails in the Senate this week expect much more lobbying before Mr Pyne tries again with a new bill including concessions. Quite significant concessions if he is to convince PUP senators Lambie and Lazarus – who are more outspoken in their opposition than their colleague Senator Wang. Both houses of parliament meet in the last week of November and the Senate sits in the first week of December.

Supporters dig in

The Group of Eight was off the pace when it released a last hurrah for deregulation yesterday, a couple of hours after Mr Palmer spoke. The Eight advised senators they “have a once in a generation opportunity to build a sustainable higher education system critical for Australia’s future.” University groups with better timing are now forming up to fight on. David Lloyd (VC Uni SA) from the Australian Technology Network, John Dewar (LaTrobe VC) from the Innovative Research Universities and IRU executive director Conor King will make the continuing case for deregulation this morning at Parliament House. The sense around the policy traps yesterday that there is still time and room for a deal. 

Gone but not forgotten

A university in Melbourne yesterday promoted former deputy PM Tim Fisher’s new book on First AIF commander John Monash, calling him, “the forgotten general.” And the name of the university? Um Monash.

Rubout the rip-offs

Rod Camm, new CEO of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, started strongly this week. Yesterday he called a meeting of members plus English teaching associations, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as training oversight agencies to “develop an industry-led response to ensuring the integrity and quality private tertiary education.”

According to Mr Camm, “when unscrupulous operators do the wrong thing, they tarnish the reputation of our entire sector.” He singled out misleading advertising, low quality teaching and enrolling people in inappropriate courses as wrong things.

This is a good and necessary move. Public sector teacher unions point to the way private providers gamed the Victorian training system when initially deregulated and critics warn against the huge student debts run up with for-profit operators in the US. And if the industry does not act, sooner or later ministers will, increasing oversight of the private sector. Mr Camm’s challenge is to come up with a proposal his members will wear, that will rubout rip-offs and defeat the argument that all would be well if TAFE had a better-funded monopoly.

Brissie bossa nova

The University of Queensland has won the state’s education export award for a program funded by the government of Brazil. Some 417 Brazilians are studying at UofQ, 300 more than last year. There are obviously great expectations for the scheme, given the university already has 11 000 international students.


More of the same

US News and World Report cops criticism for the methodology of its American university rankings but the product is certainly the best known in the US. Now the magazine has entered the crowded international field with a similar product, which uses Thomson Reuters data to assess research performance. And it has come up with similar results to all the others. Harvard is number one in the world, followed by MIT and six more US institutions with Oxford (5th) and Cambridge (6th) making up the ten. As for Australia and New Zealand, the University of Melbourne is first (32nd in the world) followed by Uni Sydney (45th), Uni Queensland (47th), ANU (72nd). Monash (88th) UNSW (94th), UWA (113th), Auckland (173rd), Adelaide (191st) and Otago (243rd).

First the bad news

The University of Melbourne has developed a blood test that could diagnose early onset Alzheimer’s 20 years before sufferers show signs. If it does the test will be an easy alternative to brain scans and neuropsychological tests. According to one its developers, Dr Lesley Cheng, it “could ease concerns for patients experiencing normal memory problems due to natural ageing. Those identified as high risk could then be monitored by their doctor.” And have lots of time to wrestle with the prospect of what is to come.