Christopher Pyne must draw a line under his failed reform agenda

Christopher Pyne isn’t fooling anyone – except perhaps himself. The Education Minister is trying to sound like a willing and reasonable negotiator on the package of higher education changes announced in the budget.

It’s better to have 80 per cent of something, he says, than nothing at all. So if he can‘t get his package through the Senate intact he’ll make some concessions to get most of it through.

That is cloud-cuckoo-land ­rhetoric. In reality, there is no evidence that Mr Pyne can be confident of getting any of the measures in the package through the Senate.

Last weekend PUP leader Clive Palmer confirmed the three PUP senators would not vote for the core measure, deregulation of university fees, and other crossbench senators have also been scathing about the fundamental unfairness of the package.

By the measure of the Senate numbers game, the Pyne plan is dead.

The minister should not be surprised that no one in the ­higher-education sector has given the package unqualified support. Even the Go8 vice-chancellors, who like the idea of removing the cap on fees, resent the scale of the package’s cuts to commonwealth-supported places. Public funds for undergraduate teaching – which universities also use to cross-subsidise research – would be cut by an average of 20 per cent, and as much as 37 per cent.

All stakeholders have recognised the fundamental inequity of imposing real interest rates on HELP debts. The result would be a crippling burden, taking decades to repay, and almost certainly ­deterring many young Australians from undertaking higher education at all.

Mr Pyne has signaled that this measure is the one on which the government is most likely to make concessions. But even if it does so, the inherent injustice of the package will not change. ­Reliable independent modelling indicates fees will rise by 40 to 60 per cent, just to make up for the funding cuts. And that means, ­although the government tries vainly to deny it, that there is a very real prospect of $100,000 ­degrees.

Tinkering at the edges of the package by mitigating the interest-rate change, perhaps in line with the suggestions made by the architect of HECS, professor Bruce Chapman, won’t diminish that prospect.

Mr Pyne is in a bind as a negotiator because the various measures in his package do in fact hang together – though not, to cite his preferred image, as parts of a “well-oiled machine”.

They are rather a series of ­unfair measures that have rusted together. And the consequences of allowing this creaking heap to become law would be the unravelling of equality of opportunity in access to higher education, and a loss of quality in many universities.

At most, a couple of the already wealthy sandstone universities might become slightly better off, though only by raising fees to ­levels that would further restrict equitable access.

Smaller and regional universities, which already struggle to compete for students and resources, will drop even further behind. They will not have the same scope to raise fees because they typically draw a greater proportion of their students from low-income households. So they will have to decide what to cut: course offerings and research will contract, and some campuses may close.

The plan Mr Pyne offers as a sop to equity – commonwealth scholarships – is a bad joke. They will not be funded by the commonwealth but by student contributions, so the wealthier Go8 universities will be better placed than their smaller competitors to offer these scholarships.

Where that happens, it will be a matter of a poor kid with an ATAR of 90 subsidising a poor kid with an ATAR of 98 – hardly what could be called an expanding of opportunity, as Mr Pyne likes to claim.

The minister’s suggestion that smaller and regional universities might lower fees to become more competitive is a crazy fantasy. There is no real-world example of deregulation leading to lower university fees, because in a deregulated system price becomes a bogus indicator of quality.

None of this resembles the building of a world-class university system that the minister talks about so glibly. Indeed, it resembles the US model that bedazzles him only in making access to quality higher education a privilege of wealthy elites.

This has all come out of nowhere. There has been no prior consultation with the sector. Unlike John Dawkins’ changes in 1988, there has been no green paper, no white paper, no circulation of draft legislation.

There has only been the minister’s assault on equality of opportunity, announced as part of a budget that imposes the greatest cost burdens on those least able to afford them.

The nation as well as individuals will suffer from making access to education depend on the ­capacity to pay. Funding education and research is fundamentally a government responsibility: the minister needs to acknowledge this, and start again.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 13 August 2014.

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