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Senate impasse creating all round uncertainty

Group of 8      |     6 November 2014

Too many “known unknowns” (2)

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Go8 logoThe Group of 8 consideration of the negative impact of the legislative impasse in the Senate on the government’s higher education package comes on the back of Melbourne University stating that it is unable to frame a budget for next year or beyond because there are to many “known unknowns.   Neither can you say that its prognostications about the likely impact on other areas of university funding, such as research, are unreasonable: the government  seems set to effect at least its savings, one way or another.  Elsewhere, the Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton suggests a freeze on student numbers would be on the cards if the deregulation package is ultimately  blocked in the Senate.

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Following the release of the report of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee on 28 October, debate commenced in the Senate on the second reading of the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 on 29 October but was suspended that evening. The Senate is scheduled to resume sittings on 24 November for two weeks before rising for the year. If the Bill is not passed in an amended form by 4 December, the Government may wait for a period in the first half of 2015 before reviving debate. Such drift would exacerbate anxieties among school students and parents who are already confused by misleading claims of exorbitant fee rises. It would also raise serious questions about timeframes for implementation.

At this stage no amendments have been flagged. The Senate Committee recommended that consideration be given to amending the proposed HELP loan indexation, and providing structural adjustment assistance for some institutions. The Government appears not to want to initiate amendments of its own Bill. The ALP and the Greens are opposing the Bill however it may be amended. It will be up to cross-benchers to initiate amendments, and Minister Pyne has indicated a willingness to countenance some modifications to the Government’s proposals, such as to the structure of HELP indexation.

This situation places disproportionate burdens on the cross benchers, many of whom are new to the complexities of the higher education policy field, and have many other matters to deal with, but have fewer resources than those simply opposing the Bill and making no effort to work on bringing higher education  financing into contemporary relevance. The dissenting reports of the ALP and Greens’ senators proposed no viable alternatives for addressing the crisis left by the outgoing government in 2013 and cost-effectively catering for future growth in student demand.

Meanwhile, the Government is making it clear that it will pursue savings on higher education outlays one way or another. At immediate risk are the funds for Australian Research Council (ARC) research fellows and National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) research infrastructure, for which the previous government failed to provide ongoing funding. At longer-term risk are programs for research, research training and research infrastructure, with associated job losses and a bleeding of talent, and a rapid decline in the reputation race where rankings underpin Australia’s success in the education export industry. Research-intensive universities would be hardest hit initially but the impact would be felt eventually all over the university sector. Without a capacity to diversify income sources the only outcome would be the further deterioration of quality.

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