The Abbott Government’s attempt in this year’s Budget to pose as a friend of small business and working families should not blind Australians to the fact that the Government has not abandoned many of the ruthless cuts in its first Budget.
That is nowhere more apparent than in Christopher Pyne’s agenda to Americanise Australia’s higher education system, which remains firmly in place.
The deregulation of university fees and the proposed 20 per cent cut in the funding of undergraduate places are included as savings in the 2015 Budget papers, despite the fact that the Government has twice failed to get the necessary legislation through the Senate.
Mr Pyne has said that he will try a third time. Whether this is because he wants to hand Tony Abbott a double-dissolution trigger or simply because the self-styled “Fixer” can’t admit defeat is a question commentators might speculate about.
What is not a matter of speculation, however, is the fact that an overwhelming majority of Australians oppose the Education Minister’s position on fee deregulation.
According to an Essential Poll released on Budget day, nearly four-fifths of Australians – 79 per cent – reject the proposition that universities should be able to set course fees at any level they want.
The same proportion believe that allowing universities to set their own fees would result in fewer Australians attending university. And 80 per cent believe that deregulating fees would lead to greater inequality between Australian universities, with the emergence of a US-style Ivy League.
A substantial majority – 70 per cent – reject the idea that it would be acceptable for Australians to have to borrow more than $100,000 to pay fees, and 77 per cent believe that deregulation would force families to take on unreasonable debt levels if they want their children to go to university.
More than half – 59 per cent – don’t believe that the quality of course offerings would improve in a deregulated system, and 53 per cent disagree that Australia’s research capacity would improve.
The proposed funding cut hasn’t won many friends among voters, either.
Nearly three-quarters – 73 per cent – believe the Federal Government should increase the overall level of funding for universities and an even bigger number – 79 per cent – believe the overall level of research funding should be increased.
The message in these poll figures must be clear even to the most obtuse supporter of deregulation.
Despite more than a year of insistently making his case, including via a $15 million taxpayer-funded misinformation campaign, Mr Pyne has completely failed to persuade the people of Australia that there is any merit in his plan at all – in fact, support for his policy has gone backwards.
The voters clearly haven’t accepted that there is a funding crisis in universities, as the Minister likes to pretend. They can recognise a confected crisis when they see one: the only crisis is the one Mr Pyne has contrived by his threatened 20 per cent cut.
They don’t want Australia to move towards the US model that so dazzles him, either. They know that shifting the burden of paying for higher education on to individuals can only decrease opportunity and increase inequality – among students and their families, and among universities, too.
Above all, the people of Australia know that the quality of the higher education system cannot be maintained when the Government refuses to pay its bills. They want a government that is firmly committed to maintaining properly funded public universities.
I don’t know whether those who suggest that Mr Pyne is persisting with his deregulation legislation to deliver the Government a double-dissolution trigger are right.
But I can confidently say this: Minister, if you really want to fight an election campaign on a higher education agenda that the voters of Australia comprehensively reject, bring it on.
This opinion piece was first published in Online Opinion on Wednesday, 20, May, 2015.