Education Minister Christopher may have had the ear of the National Press Club in Canberra today, but to the capital’s north a small revolt against his plans to deregulate the university industry appears to have claimed its first victory.
The University of Sydney is set to hold a massive public meeting to discuss the Coalition’s tertiary education reform package, allowing thousands of current and former students the opportunity to take part in its consultation process on the controversial changes.
It is understood the meeting will take place before Pyne’s proposed reforms are put to the Federal Senate, and will be open to all students, staff and alumni.
While the university is yet to announce specific details, student newspaper Honi Soit today reported that the senate had agreed to convene the event during a heated meeting on Monday.
The decision comes after a group of senators petitioned the Chancellor to call a meeting of the Convocation which would allow the university’s alumni to debate Pyne’s deregulation plan and, potentially, register dissent on behalf of the broader community.
The campaign was backed by the National Tertiary Education Union, which has encouraged other branches around the country to do likewise.
The inclusion of alumni in the event means former student Tony Abbott will be eligible to attend the meeting, held on the grounds where he first showed his talents as a student politician and a boxer of walls.
Today a key colleague of Mr Abbott’s was doing his best to defend the Coalition’s proposed higher education shake-up. During an address to the National Press Club in Canberra, Pyne hinted he would be prepared to alter elements of his education package to help it find a path through the Federal Senate.
Quoting words of support from a range of key university figures, including head of the Go8 group and ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young, Pyne stood by the reforms, which include uncapping fees, increasing the rate of student loan repayments, and opening public money to lower-level degrees run by private colleges.
“If we do not take this opportunity to transform the higher education system we will retain an unsustainable, out-dated system. We risk that system declining into mediocrity and Australia falling behind,” he said.
While Vice-Chancellors from the nation’s most prestigious universities have lobbied for deregulation, the moves have angered student groups, who criticised university leaders for failing to speak on their behalf.
University of Sydney student Patrick Massarani, the elected undergraduate member of the university’s senate, said calling a meeting to debate higher education changes was “a historic decision”.
“This is a huge win for the student community,” he said.
“The Senate in Camperdown has spoken and now it’s time for the Senate in Canberra to take notice.”
Those who had emailed the University of Sydney in support of the petition calling for a convening of the Convocation received a message from Senate Fellows Verity Firth, Patrick Massarani, and Catriona Menzies-Pike earlier today, announcing the alternate meeting would take place instead.
“Although it will not take the form of a formal Convocation, the Senate has determined that there will be a town hall style mass gathering in the Great Hall to begin the extensive consultation process which the University was already planning,” the email said.
“This gathering will include students and general staff alongside academic staff and alumni, and will therefore be inclusive of the entire university community.
“We are pleased that the Senate has affirmed the need for open consultation and thank you for your support.
“We remain committed to ensuring your voice is heard on this vital issue.”
While University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has previously expressed concern that deregulation could result in inequitable student outcomes, he has generally been supportive of Pyne’s changes.
The University of Sydney is yet to issue a statement in regards to the meeting and inquiries to the vice-chancellor’s office had not been returned at the time of press.
Update, August 8: The University of Sydney has confirmed it will hold "a town hall-style meeting that would include students and professional staff, as well as other members of the broader University community."
A statement provided to New Matilda said the university would continue to lobby the Federal Government, particularly around the affordability of the proposed loan scheme and the charging of fees for higher degree by research students.
The statement quoted Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence as saying: "The University of Sydney was founded on the principle that academic merit alone, regardless of religious beliefs or social class, would be the test for admission. Our founders recognised the power of education to change society and we hold that belief just as strongly today."
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