Pyne Ignores The Elephant In The Lecture Hall: Reactions To The Higher Ed Budget


After last year’s shock, the higher education budget is a relatively sedate affair this year, though it has still provoked plenty of disquiet.

With Joe Hockey insisting the government will push ahead with deregulation, but support for the measure lacking in the Senate and fading in the sector, Pyne has shuffled the funds elsewhere to mixed reaction.

Here’s what’s being said:


Universities Australia: Pyne Restores Funding For Research… By Cutting Funding For Research

Along with Pyne, the peak body failed to do the sales job on deregulation, an effort seen as a betrayal by those such as Canberra University Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker, who said it had lost its moral compass, and compared it to a flesh-eating bacteria at the time.

As expected, Pyne has found money for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. In a poorly calculated power play earlier this year he tried to blackmail the Senate by refusing to recommit to the scheme, which funds 1,700 research jobs and 27 facilities.

That failed to help his legislation pass, but succeeded in pissing off pretty much everybody, including Universities Australia.

Universities Australia is happy Pyne has now found $150 million for the program next year but concerned there is no more funding over the forward estimates – will we have the same fight to fund it again next year? – and even more perturbed by the fact the money was only secured thanks to a $263 million cut to another research fund (the Sustainable Research Excellence).

They’ve portrayed this cut as part of a consistent trend which has seen a chipping away at research money since the Coalition came to power.

“These cuts not only negatively affect universities with established research profiles but also those who depend on this funding to continue to build their research capability,” Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said in a statement.

There seems to be acknowledgement from the Universities Australia that deregulation is now dead, despite the Treasurer’s insistence otherwise.

“It is beyond time to stop treating higher education and research policy as a political punching bag and for the Parliament to agree to a consensus bipartisan approach that puts long-term student and national interest ahead of all else,” Robinson said.

The organisation also noted its “disappointment at a $5 million cut to the Higher Education Participation Programme, which assists disadvantaged students to realise their full potential”.

Greens And Labor: Keeping The Focus On Deregulation

With deregulation still officially part of the Coalition’s plan, Labor and the Greens are singing the same song they have been all year.

“This Budget recommits the Liberals to their unfair and unnecessary plan for $100,000 degrees,” shadow minister Kim Carr said in his post Budget release.

“This Budget confirms Tony Abbott’s intention to cut funding for undergraduate student places by 20 per cent, costing universities around $3 billion over the current forward estimates.”

Lee Rhiannon, Greens’ higher education spokesperson, called it a “copy and paste Budget”.

One of the new revenue measures Pyne has introduced will target students who move overseas and, under current laws, do not have to pay back their student debt, no matter their income.

The Greens are sceptical.

“The government’s plan to recoup student debt from graduates who move overseas is likely to be a logistical nightmare that will raise only a small amount of money,” Rhiannon said in a statement.

The Expert: Teaching And Learning Let Down

Dr Gavin Moodie, an adjunct professor of education at RMIT University, told New Matilda the Budget continued the treatment of higher education established by Labor, which involved “crimping for savings within an unchanged policy and structure”.

Moodie hit out at changes to the Office of Teaching and Learning outlined in the Budget, which will see it moved out of the Education Department.

“This reinforces the widely held view that while teaching-learning is universities’ most important role, it is very much a second priority to research.”

The Rebels: Time To Move On From Pyne’s Farce

Along with Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker, a small group of academics have been working to change the national conversation on universities in the past year, emphasising the goal of the sector should be a public good, sustained by a strong, publicly funded system.

Dr Ben Etherington from the National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU) said the government’s ongoing commitment to deregulating university fees by January 2016 was farcical.

“Clearly they want to hack into the funding of higher education in whichever way they can in the short-term while they persist with reforms that have no chance of getting through the senate,” he said.

“There is absolutely no realism in the budget papers.”

Etherington said a fundamental concern for NAPU was that policies shift so that students do not have to go into debt to achieve an undergraduate degree.

“One good thing about the farcical nature of the [deregulation]proposal has been a conversation has begun among much more serious, dedicated policy thinkers in higher education. It is clear to everybody that deregulation is absolutely the wrong way.”

The Minister: The Plan Is Not Dead, Just Sleeping

He may still be wedded to uncapping the cost of degrees, but Pyne didn’t have too much to say about it in his post budget release, focusing instead on small spending measures, and the plan to target those who move their debt overseas.

“In research, this Government will invest $10.7 billion over the forward estimates in the Education and Training portfolio alone,” his media release said.

“This includes funding of $300 million to secure the jobs of 1,700 highly skilled technical and research staff critical to the ongoing operations of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) for the next two years to 30 June 2017. NCRIS was left without ongoing funding by the previous government.”

Meanwhile, the elephant in the lecture hall remains ignored: what next if the government cannot pass its deregulation bill?

With an early election now being talked up, a second-term Coalition government may well be waiting for a new Senate to have another dig.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.