Radio Interview, The World Today, with Alexandra Kirk


SUBJECT/S: World rankings show Australian universities are doing well; Pyne likely to defer higher education legislation

ELEANOR HALL (HOST): The Opposition says that the latest Times World University Rankings prove that Australia already has a world-class university system and the Government should not put that at risk. The Government’s deregulation bill is struggling to get enough support to pass the Senate, and Labor’s higher education spokesman, Kim Carr, has told the World Today that he understands the Government is now looking to defer its bill, which could blow another hold in its budget. Kim Carr spoke to Alexandra Kirk, beginning with the latest university rankings.

CARR: What it shows is that Australian universities are going from strength to strength, and this is the pattern that has been established by other ratings agencies as well. Australian universities are in very good shape. Of course they could be improved, of course they could do better, but the fact is that the Government’s program is about reducing their standing – cutting their resources, cutting their capacities, making students pay much, much, more, and undermining their ability to compete internationally.

KIRK: But a large number of universities in the top 200 are American universities, and the US system is deregulated. So couldn’t it be equally seen as a vote of confidence for a system of deregulation?

CARR: What the ratings agency actually says is that the reforms could see a small Australian elite being protected and improving their standards, but the rest of the system may well be put in a worse position. The American university system has some of the best universities in the world and some of the worst.  American debt levels are now at crippling proportions, and that is a matter of deep concern to the American Congress.  To try to Americanise the Australian system would actually be to set back the cause of equality in this country, to set back the cause of quality in this country, and would undermine our international standing because you would see that Australia would actually decline in its standards, not advance. That’s what would happen. There would be a two-tiered system. Very few would do really well, most would do really badly.

KIRK: But if you look at what the vice-chancellor of the Australian National University and the head of the Group of Eight, Professor Ian Young, says, that there’s a very strong correlation between funding and how you perform as an international institution. So he’s saying that if deregulation doesn’t go through the Senate, that’ll mean there’ll be less funds for Australia’s universities to function at those world-class levels.

CARR: What these rankings show you is that Labor’s investment, the increase in funding by nearly 100 per cent has paid off.

KIRK: But is that funding model sustainable in the future?

CARR: Of course funding is sustainable, but the Government’s trying to cut it. What the universities would appreciate is that legislation is required to cut funding and the Government can’t get that legislation. That means that the funding formulas that are in the current legislation would have to be maintained. So the universities really have to expect the Government, under law, to return the money they are withholding at the moment, and that reconciliation process has to occur by March of next year.

KIRK: Has the Government accepted that that is the case?

CARR: The Government won’t have any choice in that matter because presumably we are paying some of the best lawyers in the land to teach in our universities and I would have thought that would be a question that could be enforced in a court of law.

KIRK: And what’s your understanding of the status of the Government’s higher education deregulation package? Currently it’s gone through the lower house, it’s before a Senate inquiry …

CARR: Well, what we know is that there are 130 submissions to the Senate inquiry, which is due to report before the end of this month. All of the major players in the Senate won’t support this legislation, so the legislation won’t be able to pass the Senate on the current numbers.

KIRK: The Government’s persisting with it, though.

CARR: That’s why the Government has been talking to vice-chancellors about deferring the legislation – about withdrawing the legislation from the current notice paper and trying to start again. Which is what they should do, of course. This is legislation that is fundamentally flawed. It is rotten to the core, and the Minister is now understanding that. That’s why he’s talking to vice-chancellors about putting it off until next year.

KIRK: How do you know this?

CARR: Because a number of vice-chancellors have indicated to me – and my sources are reasonably good in the higher education system. The minister thinks that he's just talking to a few trusted vice-chancellors. The nature of the university system in this country is that people talk to each other.

They know what this system is flawed, they know that it won't be able to secure a parliamentary majority, they know that the Government cannot get it through the Senate.

They also know they can't secure the budget cuts that they want and they can't secure the deregulation of the system.

So whether or not there is some nip and tuck in the system in the future remains to be seen but the reality won't change.

ELEANOR HALL: That's the Opposition's higher education spokesman, Senator Kim Carr, speaking to Alexandra Kirk.

The Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, declined The World Today's request for an interview. But a spokesman says the Government will introduce its higher education reforms into the Senate once the Senate inquiry has completed its work, most likely later this month.

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