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.
Russell Marks Politicoz Editor
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