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Senate faces choice between good policy or cheap politics – ATN

ATN    |    2 July 2014

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Vicki-Thomson-photoWith the new look Senate now in place there are scary times ahead for the higher education sector, writes Vicki Thomson of the Australian Technology Network. The Senate has already knocked off higher education savings of $435m initiated by the former Labor government – drawing accusations of hypocrisy from education minister Christopher Pyne. This may put at risk other reforms, on cost grounds, such as the extension of Commonwealth Supported Places to students at non-university providers, or the perceived unpopularity of measures such as fee deregulation. Thomson says that the ATN is a reluctant supporter of fee deregulation but sees it as the only practical means of sustaining the quality of the university sector. She suggests that to reject fee deregulation out of hand — “the easy path of populism and publicity” — would be to sign the ultimate “death warrant on a globally respected higher education system”.
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It is, of course, far too early to know how the new band of independents will perform. But with the future of the higher education sector — from fee deregulation to equity — in their hands, I openly can admit I harbour concerns. The subject matter ahead for the new senators is highly complex and it would be far easier for them to reject the government’s legislative changes outright.

There is also the risk the new independent senators may seek populism and publicity over policy. I can well imagine that in the hothouse of attention that will follow their every move, it may well prove hard to manage the avalanche of dense legislation and lobbying.

In the full glare of the media, there might be short-term kudos from taking the path of least resistance: after all, there’s not much negative publicity from falling into line with the government. The media attention comes from making a government’s life difficult.

Universities and future, current and past students are facing the most significant and far-reaching reforms in decades. Much is at stake.

Agreeing with fee deregulation, as we do at the Australian Technology Network, has not been an easy decision. But you don’t need university-level maths to recognise that having embraced it, the demand-driven system was a recipe for financial disaster.

Put simply, a cash-strapped federal government could not continue to fund uncapped student places. And neither could universities. Even to the ATN, which had been reluctant to support fee deregulation as a solution, some form of deregulation appeared to be the only logical option.

Of course, it’s about more than just financial savings, it’s also about driving diversity and giving students unparalleled choice.

That decision to support deregulation took many months of deliberation and internal discussion, coupled with pragmatism. The new independent senators, with no background in higher education, have to be across the reasoning and the outcomes in just a few weeks. They have to be ready to negotiate with government to make the legislation better — not to simply reject it.

To reject the legislation out of hand — the easy path of populism and publicity — would be to sign the death warrant on a globally respected higher education system. The demise wouldn’t be overnight of course; it will be slow and painful, but it would always be known as having its origins in the new Senate of 2014.

I am sure that’s not how our new independent senators will want to be remembered. They deserve a far better legacy. They have an unenviable few months ahead of them. We can only hope they understand good responsible public policy must always come first, and that they have the fortitude to assist deliver it.

Vicki Thomson is executive director of the Australian Technology Network.
This opinion piece appeared in The Australian on 2 July 2014.

 

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