For 10 months, there have been two national conversations about the Abbott government’s attempted makeover of Australia’s universities.
Christopher Pyne, the education minister, has had a conversation with the universities’ vice-chancellors, who have mostly fallen into line as the minister’s cheer squad – at least on fee deregulation, if not on funding cuts.
There has been a very different conversation among students and their families, and among academics, few of whom share the views of those in who reside their chanceries.
A university community has always been more than just the vice-chancellor. It includes students, staff and scholars. The oddity is that participants in the first conversation have acted as though the second did not exist
The advocates of deregulation have displayed an astonishing lack of political acumen by shrugging off what has always been apparent: that Australians overwhelmingly reject fee deregulation.
The voting public has never been conned by the minister’s implausible claim that deregulation is in the best interest of students. Even the misuse of taxpayers’ money on a slick but misleading $15m ad campaign could not help him there.
Voters see that deregulated fees, even without a funding cut, would inevitably mean higher fees. There would be no price competition, because in the so-called education market, price becomes a perceived indicator of quality.
That has universally been the experience of deregulated university fees in other countries. The consequence of deregulation here would be the same: a doubling and trebling of the cost of degrees, and ballooning student debt.
An affordable, quality university education would become less and less accessible to more and more people. And equality of opportunity – the fair go that Australians rightly expect – would begin to wither.
The existence of misnamed “Commonwealth” scholarships, funded in fact by other students, would do nothing to prevent that. Students and aspiring students understood the implications of fee deregulation from the outset. So did their parents, and so did university staff.
The great majority of vice-chancellors, at least in public, chose to ignore the rest of their university communities. The minister’s decision to hold a closed conversation with a section of the university elite has been his downfall.
He has now failed twice to persuade the Senate to pass a deregulation bill. That should surprise no one. Among the minister’s media cheer squad there was rage and incomprehension
There have been attacks on the Senators who opposed deregulation, bizarrely alleging that they, rather than its supporters, are out of touch with reality. Pyne is vowing to try again after the Budget, apparently believing that endless repetition of failed arguments will mysteriously lead to success.
Australians – students, their families, their teachers, and yes, vice-chancellors, too – deserve an approach to higher education that does not ignore reality.
There are hints that some stakeholders who have so far been unwilling to join the wider debate might now be seeking a way to do so.
After the Senate vote, the chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, told ABC News 24: “Now look, we don’t want to say – no one’s ever said – there’s a crisis in the sector at the moment.”
No one? The minister routinely claimed, when spruiking his two failed bills, that fee deregulation was needed to stave off a crisis in funding and quality. Yet there was never any evidence of a crisis, apart from the one the government contrived by its threatened 20% cut to the funding of student places.
The reality, as Robinson has acknowledged, is that there is no crisis. There is, of course, a need to ensure that public funding of universities is secure, predictable and sustainable.
There is a need to ensure that quality and reputation are maintained across the sector, and that students are supported to succeed, not just enrol. Labor will contest the next election with a policy that delivers these things.
And we will seek to engage universities in a constructive conversation on the details of that policy. It will not be a conversation about the withdrawal of public provision and creeping privatisation of the sector.
Nor will it be about saddling students and taxpayers with crippling debts. It will be an extension of the conversation the Australian people are already having.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on Monday the 30th of March 2015.