Turbulence ahead for Pyne's dog-eat-dog model

Any presumption that Labor’s opposition to the Abbott Government’s higher education changes is an exercise in revenge politics or knee-jerk negativity is wildly off the mark. Nor is it driven by political expedience or populist appeal.

Labor opposes the higher education bill because it is a deeply flawed policy. It vastly increases the cost of a university degree and shifts that financial burden on to students. This is particularly unfair on disadvantaged young people and mature-age students.

It is morally wrong to destroy the prospect of the Australian fair go for many thousands of families, to slug students in order to sustain research programs and to let the Government off the hook for its responsibility to fund higher education.

That has been our consistent response since the Abbott Government sprang its nasty surprise on an unsuspecting nation on Budget night, and it remains so. 

These proposals were not canvassed before the election. Unlike the last big restructure, the Dawkins reforms, there has been no green paper, no white paper and no exposure draft legislation for discussion. In its pre-election promises, the Coalition was adamant there would be no cuts to education. There is simply no mandate for these radical and retrograde changes. 

Moving on from broken promises, what do the proposals themselves offer? Three main prongs affect fees at public universities: a 20 per cent cut to course funding, “letting it rip” on fees (as a National Party delegate recently described deregulation), and a hefty compound interest rate.  

What’s to like?

Labor rejects each element of this trio outright. Removing or tweaking one or two will not make the rest more acceptable. Individually and in combination, they are inherently unfair, short-sighted and unnecessarily rushed. The inherent risks will only be exacerbated by the Americanisation of the sector through open-ended access to Commonwealth funding for private providers.

Those who urge Labor to “come on to the field and play” assume the Pyne package can be made into a workable policy. If only Labor would join in the game and agree to help sort out the rules, somehow the higher education sector could retire to the pavilion as the victor and all would be well.  

Sadly, this is no game – and no one will be the winner out of the Pyne plan. Not students, not regional universities, not low- and middle-income families, not those from country towns, not women, not those who want to study science or engineering, not aspiring vets, not would-be nurses and teachers and, ultimately, not the nation. This policy cannot be salvaged, built as it is on a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest model that turns its back on social justice. 

The Group of Eight might relish the prospect of boosting their research programs – and hence their prestige – through higher fees, but even that elite group acknowledges the plan is inherently unfair on universities lacking their cachet. Why else would they back the call for targeted support for the regionals? As for regional universities cowed into supporting full deregulation, the struggle with cognitive dissonance must be acute. 

Critics dismiss $100,000 degrees as straw-man propositions, but reputable modelling by NATSEM,  Universities Australia and the NTEU points to a potential doubling and tripling of the cost of degrees, some in excess of $100,000. Christopher Pyne is yet to produce government modelling or analysis to the contrary. Indeed, his own Regulation Impact Statement notes the rapid trebling of fees after deregulation in the UK.

Furthermore, it’s a bit rich to be calling on Labor to show policy coherence while failing to call the Government to account on a shambolic policy package, whose failure to cohere is somehow the fault of those who oppose it. The onus is not on Labor, or any non-government party, to come up with the solution.

This is not a proposition to which there is no alternative, as so many have been conned into thinking. 

And far from withdrawing from the policy contest, as some claim, Labor is actively engaging in the debate. It has pushed for a Senate committee inquiry into the bill and will actively prosecute its case in that forum.

Labor stands determined to defeat an inequitable, ill-considered and irredeemably flawed policy. And it makes no apologies for doing so. 

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on Monday, 15 September 2014.

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