Pyne pays for ignoring the lessons of history

Anyone with a strong interest in higher education policy and a clear memory of 1999 would have had a strange feeling of déjà vu on Budget night.

As the Abbott Government unveiled its higher education package on May 13, the response might well have been:  “Now, where’ve I heard that before?”

Possibly followed by a moment of recognition: “Ah, yes – isn’t that what David Kemp had in mind back in 1999? That leaked cabinet submission? An ensuing furore – and then John Howard moving swiftly to dismiss it out of hand?”

Correct, on all counts.

Dr Kemp’s 1999 cabinet submission – described at the time as “wildly ideological” – has come back to haunt us in the form of Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s higher education package. The two are virtually identical.

Back in ‘99, after Education Minister Kemp’s submission was leaked, Labor started quoting from it in Parliament. The plan flew in the face of Howard’s election promises not to deregulate university fees or introduce “voucher” funding.

All hell broke loose and the following day, October 15, 1999, the Prime Minister was forced to back down over it.

Kemp’s submission proposed:

  • “A universal tuition subsidy which follows the student to accredited higher education courses offered by quality-assured public and private providers”
  • “Student fees for tuition set by providers”
  • Institutions would be “obliged to reserve a fixed proportion of premium fee income for equity purposes”, including scholarships
  • “A universal loans scheme . . . with a real rate of interest and repayable through the tax system on an income-contingent basis”
  • “A total Commonwealth funding envelope which . . . achieves a fair-sharing of the costs, reflecting both public and private benefits from higher education”
  • “Revised quality assurance arrangements which facilitate the entry of new players 

Sound familiar?

Crucially, though, the 1999 Kemp package recognised the need to ameliorate some of its unpopular and damaging effects, proposing consideration of “constraining or capping fee increases during a transitional period” and a possible “waiver of interest where a person’s income is below the minimum repayment threshold”.

None of these ameliorating measures appears in the Pyne plan. Nor did Dr Kemp intend to apply the new arrangements to existing students or to introduce a real interest rate on loans to former students.

Dr Kemp conceded his package would be “controversial”, proposing to emphasise the significant private returns, including the lower rates of unemployment enjoyed by graduates.

Pyne has stuck to the script. It’s not surprising given that the pair he chose to conduct a review for him were none other than the same Dr Kemp, along with the same Andrew Norton who had advised Dr Kemp in 1999.  Hence, more of the same.

Pyne might also have misjudged how far he could go because of the enthusiasm for deregulation among the Group of Eight. But those very same vice-chancellors are now mostly aghast at what Pyne has come up with.

Prominent among them is the University of Adelaide’s Professor Warren Bebbington who memorably summed up his concerns: “Deregulation would become misregulation.”

It might have been a different matter had Mr Pyne taken the electorate into his confidence before proposing, as he puts it, the most radical changes to higher education in 30 years. He might then have been in a position to realise from the response that his plan was unworkable and unfair – or to claim support for it, in the unlikely event that it had been favourably received.

But he didn’t – both before and after the election he was promising that university fees would not rise. Just seven months ago, he was reassuringly telling an interviewer on Sky TV that “we want university students to make their contribution, but we're not going to raise fees”.

And now he is feeling the blowback of widespread opposition. But if he had been a more astute student of history and had paid more attention to what happened after Dr Kemp’s cabinet submission was leaked in 1999, he would have known there was a precedent for that sort of outcry.

Or as that variant on George Santayana’s quote puts it, "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

This article first appeared in The Australian on Wednesday, 25 June 2014.

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