Australian government ‘not hostile to universities’: Pyne

Unfavourable policies stem from ‘frustrations’ over stymied reforms, former education minister says

April 21, 2021
Christopher Pyne

Australia’s government is not antithetical to universities, according to former Liberal politician Christopher Pyne, who says his former colleagues’ approach to the sector is driven by “bewilderment” over its recalcitrance.

Mr Pyne said the government’s seemingly punitive stance on universities – demonstrated in regulatory interventions, denial of JobKeeper employment subsidies and policies that damaged education exports – was a “bit of a mystery” but reflected “frustration” over the difficulty of convincing the sector to unite behind sensible reforms.

“There’s no inbuilt hostility,” he told the Australian Technology Network’s innovation summit. “[The] frustration in government would be getting students, the left, universities, administrators, researchers [and] academics to understand what’s in their best interests, and that getting money out of the government – manna from heaven, showering cash on universities – is never going to happen, whoever’s in power.

“Reform needs to happen to give universities more opportunities to find their own sources of revenue, and it’s almost impossible to get that reform through our current polity.”

Mr Pyne unsuccessfully attempted to deregulate domestic undergraduate students’ fees during a stint as education minister between 2013 and 2015. He retired from politics in 2019 and now works as a private business consultant and “industry professor” with the University of South Australia.

As minister, he said, he had found university chiefs to be “pragmatic” about the need for a “quid pro quo with the government” to secure funding flows. “But the vice-chancellors weren’t able to carry the sector with them,” he told the summit. “My attempt had all but one vice-chancellor supporting it, which was somewhat of a miracle. It still didn’t get through the Senate.”

He said whoever was in government – Labor or Liberal – needed to have frank discussions with cross-bench politicians about practical reforms that did not “harken back to some kind of ’60s nirvana, which doesn’t exist except in people’s fantasies”.

“What would they support that would be good for universities and allow them to thrive? Because if we can’t convince the Greens and the cross-benchers, nothing gets done. Higher education reform…gets caught up with conservatives versus left wing, people marching in the street, the minister being burned in effigy. It’s kind of a pantomime hiding a much more serious problem, which is the inability to drive one of our most significant exports.”

Mr Pyne said he did not expect a rapid return of Chinese students to Australian universities. But he predicted that strains between the two countries would “right themselves”, as with previous “moments of tension”.

“Beijing will realise that squeezing Australia economically hasn’t had the desired impact,” he said. “China’s actions against Australia have made its neighbours more nervous – not more likely to move closer to Beijing. It’s reminded the Asean nations, Japan, India, the US and Australia that we need to work more closely together, not be pushed further apart.”

He also predicted fewer government interventions in Australian Research Council funding, after former education minister Dan Tehan and current minister Alan Tudge rejected or delayed several grants. Neither Mr Pyne nor fellow former education minister Julie Bishop had intervened in grant application processes, he said.

“It’s not something that happens as a matter of routine – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The universities wouldn’t expect a ruler being run over every single grant application.”

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