Australian PM, Senators Scrap Over Higher Education

Tony Abbott’s Conservative government and the crossbench are not on the same page when it comes to Australian higher education changes which need to be passed by the beginning of December during the parliament spring sittings.

The prime minister and the independent and minor party members of the crossbench are at odds because universities need time to make modifications to IT and administrative systems before the deregulation of fees in 2016. Daniel Hurst of The Guardian, says the education bill in question includes an average 20% cut to commonwealth subsidies for university degrees, the removal of caps on domestic tuition fees and higher interest rates on student loans.

The Department of Education and universities need time to take care of communication activities and to make sure that universities can provide information to students on tuition fees.  The fees will be deregulated on January 1, 2016, for those who enrolled in a course after the May 13 budget announcement.

Anyone signing up now faces uncertainty about costs, since fees could change in the middle of their courses.  Those who enrolled before the budget was changed will not face the increased fees.

Members of Parliament and senators said that universities would not only have to implement IT and new administrative processes, but also develop understanding of government reporting and also train staff.

The Greens‘ spokeswoman for higher education, Lee Rhiannon, said [education minister Christopher] Pyne was “scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for arguments” to support his higher education cuts.

“After failing to convince the community to support his regressive proposals, Mr Pyne tried to blackmail the Senate by threatening research funding cuts,” Rhiannon said.

Labor and the Greens are against the education reforms because of the burden they may put on students.  Because of this, the government needs support from six of eight crossbench senators in order for the legislation to pass.  Still, the Palmer United Party is opposed to fee deregulation and, with three senate votes, could block the changes.

An article in University World News by Geoff Maslen reports that the current federal limit on university fees, when lifted by the government, would allow institutions of higher education to charge whatever rates they believe students would be willing to pay.  Concurrently, universities’ funding would be cut an average of 20%, but possibly up to 40%, and increased charges for student loans would cost them thousands of dollars more and take years longer to pay.

Pyne also proposes that private sector universities and other providers of higher education would compete with public universities for government funding.  This could cause public schools to lose money and students.

Dr. Jamie Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in history at Cornell University and a critic of the Pyne reforms, says the real motive for the reforms is to attract more international students.  The reforms are driven by business interests, Miller says, and not education.

“The government has strenuously avoided acknowledging in public that the ‘demand’ it was really interested in was foreign rather than local. But the budget papers are explicit: ‘We are vying for students in a fiercely competitive international market… Currently, our universities have limited prospects of competing with the best in Europe and North America and the fast-developing universities of Asia.”

If the Pyne legislation is blocked by the Senate, the government has considered cutting billions of dollars in research funding from universities.  The Guardian’s Lenore Taylor says that Pyne will not rule this option out, but has repeatedly said that it would be a last resort.  He reiterated that the reforms would keep the education sector from “sliding into mediocrity” and that the reform is aimed at putting Australian universities into the top 50 in the world.