Australia: Coalition takes second run at higher education reform bill

One day after a Senate defeat, the government renews efforts to pass controversial package of changes

December 11, 2014

The Australian government has begun a second attempt to pass its controversial university reforms, which would uncap student fees, less than 24 hours after its original bill was defeated in the country’s upper house.

The bill was defeated in the Senate by 33 votes to 31 on 2 December after the government failed to win support from a sufficient number of crossbench senators. In addition to uncapping fees, the package of measures would have cut university funding by 20 per cent, charged a real interest rate on student loans, and extended loan eligibility to students at private and non-university providers.

Student numbers are already uncapped in Australia, and the uncapping of fees was supported by most universities as a way to shore up the system’s sustainability amid falling per-student funding. However, many vice-chancellors and politicians have expressed concerns about the impact of the measures on students.

The government made a raft of concessions in an attempt to win over the crossbench peers who hold the balance of power in the Senate. These changes included maintaining the link between loan interest and the rate of inflation, introducing bursaries for students from poor regional and rural areas and establishing a “structural adjustment” fund for the universities adversely affected by the changes.

Those concessions have been retained in the new bill, which was introduced to the government controlled lower house on 3 December. It is likely to return to the Senate in February.

Universities Australia welcomed the introduction of the new bill and the government’s commitment to undertaking negotiations over the Christmas break. But chief executive Belinda Robinson called for a relaxation of the proposed level of funding cuts, saying that it would put “significant upward pressure on student fees”.

Some senators have already said that they will not support the bill if it includes funding cuts and the uncapping of fees, in the wake of predictions that fees could exceed A$100,000 (£64,000). However, the Queensland University of Technology last week revealed that its most expensive degree – a five-year double degree in business and law – would be set at just A$78,500, representing a rise of A$17,300 on the current fee.

Some vice-chancellors of the Group of Eight universities – which have previously expressed fears that the government would cut the research budget if the reforms are not passed – reacted with dismay to the failure of the original bill.

Warren Bebbington, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Adelaide, said: “Those who opposed the reform failed to offer any real alternative, leaving in place a funding system unsustainable in the long term so long as taxpayers are not prepared to massively increase their contribution.”

He added: “In the price-regulated system, the only way universities can deal with rising costs is to enrol more and more students. Classes get bigger and bigger, and the education more and more impersonal.”

Christopher Pyne, the minister for education, said he was confident that “time and persuasion” would convince crossbenchers to support the revised bill.

“I’ve never been against debate, I’ve never been against a battle. I think this is important reform and I am committed to it,” Mr Pyne said.

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