Opponents of Christopher Pyne’s higher education changes are claiming another small victory after the body representing Australia’s most prestigious universities dampened its hearty support for the measures.
The Group of Eight (Go8) has been one of Pyne’s most solid backers, with vice-chancellors from the eight universities regularly coming out to bat when the Minister has faced criticism for the legislation, which will see university course prices uncapped and potentially sky-rocket.
But the back down has done nothing to slow the torrent of criticism directed towards the Go8 from opponents of the government’s agenda.
In a statement on their website the Go8 called for a “de-politicised” review of higher education, “one that involved pre-eminent employer/business groups such as the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Minerals Council of Australia, together with the learned academies”.
The statement made no mention of students, nor the union involvement.
National Tertiary Education Union president Jeannie Rea slammed the body for failing to acknowledged the “massive public opposition” to deregulation, and said the Go8 was “licking its wounds and figuring out how to get another go”.
Rea said the government had produced its legislation before broad consultation had taken place, and should commit to a new green paper.
“I don’t know if we’ll bring everyone on board, but everyone should be involved in the process,” Rea said.
“It’s about time we had a proper, transparent, full discussion in universities with groups of students and staff involved in those.”
Rea also hit out at the Go8 for failing to advocate for the inclusion of unions as well as professional bodies, such as the Australian Medical Association, in such a process.
AMA Vice-President Dr Stephen Parnis noted the Go8 had referred to the inclusion of “learned academies”, but said professional bodies also had “quite a role to play” in higher education policy.
He said the AMA disagreed with the Go8’s position on deregulation and was concerned some medical students could face debts of up to $250,000 if the legislation was passed.
“We think it would bring back the old system where medicine may well only be for those who come from a background of privilege,” Dr Parnas said.
While maintaining in-principle support for deregulation, the Go8 statement acknowledges Pyne’s legislation is likely to fail for a third time, should it go before the Senate again.
Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive of the Go8, told the ABC the group still supported the current package.
“We are saying we support the deregulation package that is before the Senate, we don’t support the range of compromises that may be considered as part of the reform process,” she said.
But in a blow for the Minister, the group expressed concern about alternatives being floated with the hope of luring crossbench support, the only realistic way forward for the legislation.
“The Go8 is concerned that a number of other proposals being floated as solutions do not tackle the core issue of long-term funding satisfactorily,” its statement said.
Greens higher education spokesperson Lee Rhiannon said the Go8 should throw its support behind a campaign for increased funding to public universities.
“The Go8 call for the ‘reset button’ to be pressed on higher education should apply to these elite universities themselves, as their actions have done such a disservice to staff, students and other universities,” Rhiannon said in a statement.
“They need to accept much of the responsibility for the policy confusion on higher education that have put students and prospective students and their families under so much pressure.
“It was their solid support that allowed Minister Christopher Pyne to push ahead with his destructive plan for nearly 12 months.”
In an opinion piece published by Guardian Australia, Shadow Minister for Higher Education Kim Carr said vice-chancellors had ignored the public and broader university community.
“A university community has always been more than just the vice-chancellor. It includes students, staff and scholars,” Carr wrote.
“The oddity is that participants in the first conversation have acted as though the second did not exist.”
In a separate statement issued today, Carr said Pyne had “been abandoned by the powerful Group of Eight universities – a move that should finally signal an end to his chaotic effort to deregulate university fees”.
The Go8 and Christopher Pyne's office have both been contacted for comment.
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