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“One shot” for university reform, says Pyne

The Australian     |      27 August 2014

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Education minister Christopher Pyne has warned there is only “one shot in the locker’’ for university reform and Australia’s $15 billion higher education sector will follow manufacturing into decline if his deregulation plan fails. He describes his proposed reforms as an integrated “well-oiled machine”.
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 welloiled

Speaking on the eve of introducing reform legislation to Parliament, Pyne cranked up the pressure on Labor, the Greens and Senate crossbenchers to allow universities to set their own fees. He insists that the sector broadly support reform, though there are concerns among vice-chancellors about aspects of the controversial package of measures, particularly his plan to charge interest paid on commonwealth loans at the government bond rate, capped at 6% a year, rather than inflation.

Although he is negotiating with senators and has indicated he is prepared to “compromise”, Pyne would not canvass his negotiating position.

We need the reform bill to pass as we proposed it, we believe … it is a well-oiled machine that all works together in promoting competition and keeping fees low.

The legislation to be introduced to Parliament on 28 August will take in all measures unveiled in the budget, despite the criticism of the package.

In addition to fee deregulation and interest rate changes, the package includes a 20% cut to university funding, funding of a new commonwealth scholarship scheme (funded from student fees), expansion of the current demand-driven admission system to sub-degrees and expansion of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to non-university higher education providers.

In an interview with The Australian, Pyne declared his proposed reforms to be

…a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make lasting reform to the higher education sector that has real benefits to the economy, to universities and to students. If it fails, I think a lot of people will say, ‘that’s the one shot in the locker’.

Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr says Pyne should tear up the plan and “go back to scratch”.

This is a proposition that will not fly and we ought to reject it, go back to the drawing board.

University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Warren Bebbington says the reform plan needs amending.

The overwhelming majority of vice-chancellors support the deregulation of university fees but oppose the increased interest rates proposed for students debts.

Since the budget was announced, we’ve heard frightening projections of exorbitant fees if deregulation is adopted. But the fact is, in a competitive environment, some fees will go up and some down. Students will have a range of choice they have never had before.

Pyne told The Australian that  the “worst-case scenario’’ involved a stalemate in the Senate and the year ending without university reform the likely result being:

… the universities will decline over time and be overtaken by their Asian competitors. We will be sitting here in 10 years’ time saying, ‘why didn’t the government do something about it when it knew it could, in exactly the same way as we had the debate about the manufacturing sector in Australia’.

Or they might ask why successive governments have slashed higher education and research funding.

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