Australia minister still hopes for cross-bench shift on cuts plan

Simon Birmingham suggests Productivity Commission report could change senators' minds

October 30, 2017
Australian parliament
Source: iStock
Australian parliament

Australia’s education minister still hopes that there may be “reconsideration of position” by crossbenchers who blocked plans to cut university funding and raise tuition fees.

Simon Birmingham said in an interview with Sky News that he thought a report on higher education by the government’s Productivity Commission may shift opinions in the Senate, where the Liberal-led government does not have a majority.

He was speaking after the Nick Xenophon Team, which has three cross-bench senators, said that it could not support the measures. With Labor and the Greens opposed, the government needed the support of at least 10 of the 12 cross-benchers to pass the bill.

Asked if the plans on university funding – which would cut funding by A$2.8 billion (£1.7 billion), or 2.5 per cent, and increase fees by 7.5 per cent – were “dead now”, Mr Birmingham replied that the government would keep “working away with the Senate where we can”.

He added: “I hope that there will be reconsideration of position by some on the crossbench. We saw some strong positions taken in the Productivity Commission report last week, not all of which I agree with, but it certainly did indicate that there was much greater need for a focus on getting more efficiency from government and taxpayer and student investment in higher education, that there ought to be more accountability with universities in terms of graduate outcomes and these are some of the things that the Turnbull government’s reforms actually focus on already.

“So I hope that might give cause for reconsideration by some parties. If not, well then we will consider of course where we go in terms in higher education policy and also in terms of continuing to live within our means and chart the course towards balancing the budget in a few years’ time.”

Margaret Gardner, vice-chancellor of Monash University and chair of Universities Australia, recently told Times Higher Education that the sector’s funding battle with the government was “not all over”.

“It’s certainly true that, while this legislation will now not pass, of course the government has other measures open to it,” Professor Gardner said. “I hope that the government sees that in general the public is not persuaded that universities should be the major target from which they derive funds back in order to deal with broader budget repair.”

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