Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday declared that Christopher Pyne's university reforms – which failed in the Senate late last year – will be "front and centre" of his government's agenda for the first part of the year. With Labor and the Greens opposing the reforms, the Coalition needs the votes of at least six of the eight Senate cross-benchers. But Ricky Muir and Nick Xenophon are very likely to vote against them, as are the Palmer United Party's Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang. Jacqui Lambie also voted against the legislation last year and is unlikely to change her mind.
That the core of the package is fee deregulation – allowing universities to charge what they can get – is increasingly obvious with each barnacle Pyne slices off in his efforts to improve its attractiveness to crossbench Senators. The latest such barnacle, according to The Australian, is the 20 per cent cut to the amount the government funds courses. If Pyne withdraws the funding cut, the package would "save" the Commonwealth a projected $4 billion over the next 10 years, even accounting for the additional subsidies to private education providers. The original package was projected to save nearly $10 billion.
Why is the Abbott government so committed to deregulating fees? The National Commission of Audit, which recommended deregulation to the government, declared (without supporting evidence) that complete fee deregulation "should improve efficiency through the operation of competitive forces". Pyne agrees, and believes that it's competition for students and research dollars that drives the successes – in terms of university rankings – of the American universities. But that's largely myth, based on free-market ideology. The top American universities are heavily supported by philanthopic endowments and government funding, and much American comment bemoans the unequal access its population has to quality education. Fee deregulation, which is supported by most Australian universities on the basis that government funding is increasingly uncertain while student numbers remain uncapped, will either reduce access to university among the school-leaving population, or dramatically increase levels of private debt among students. Pyne says graduates will be able to service that debt because their earning capacity improves with a degree, but that's highly debatable.
Peter Martin asks in Fairfax why Tony Abbott, who is determined to be an "infrastructure prime minister", has not taken advantage of incredibly low bond rates to borrow substantial money to fund major projects.
Paul Farrell at Guardian Australia: "Serious incidents in Australian-run detention centres – including self-harm, assaults and infectious medical conditions – have risen sharply, with hundreds of injuries sustained by staff and asylum seekers reported to the federal workplace authority."
Helen Davidson at Guardian Australia: "A 33-year-old man who has been on hunger strike in a Darwin detention centre says staff ... refused his request to be served digestible food suitable for his malnourished state."
Sarah Whyte in Fairfax: "Private security guards stormed a barricaded section of the Manus Island detention centre in riot gear at 3.30pm on Monday, detaining 58 asylum seekers from Somalia, Iran and Sudan and taking some to Lorengau police station, in the island's capital."
Lisa Cox in Fairfax: "The Abbott government has been accused of backing away from its international obligations on animal conservation after it declared it would opt out of protecting five shark species."
Thom Mitchell at NewMatilda: "Whitehaven Coal’s controversial Maules Creek Mine – one of the nation’s largest coal mines under construction and a project that will help destroy the critically endangered Leard State Forest – appears increasingly unlikely to ever return a profit."
Joshua Robertson at Guardian Australia: "Campbell Newman has been forced to fend off attacks on the integrity of his government as new details emerged linking one of his ministers to a business figure involved in a controversial coalmine expansion."
Jessica Kidd at ABC News: "Hundreds of charities and social service providers across Australia are facing the prospect of shutting down after they were told they no longer qualified for federal government funding."
James Massola in Fairfax: "At present, foreign workers can be brought in to work temporarily in Australia on a film project after approval from George Brandis, consultation with the MEAA and confirmation the project will bring a net employment benefit to Australia. The government has ordered a review with a view to … removing all three of these protections."