Australia’s higher education sector may have dodged a political bullet, after a compromise candidate became the nation’s 30th prime minister.
Sources say the elevation of former treasurer Scott Morrison may have spared the sector a fresh round of turmoil, with education minister Simon Birmingham – a key backer of ousted prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – now tipped to retain his portfolio.
It could also avoid the “ideological cold war debate” that might have ensued if Mr Morrison’s opponent, the conservative former home affairs minister Peter Dutton, had claimed the top job.
Mr Birmingham’s standing in the sector has been tarnished by last year’s freezing of Australia’s demand-driven higher education funding system, and a deterioration of research funding under his watch.
Nevertheless, he is respected in higher education circles. Perhaps more importantly, he offers a clear policy direction – particularly after a rare political win, when his legislation to tighten student loan repayments passed parliament earlier this month.
This would have counted for little if Mr Dutton had won Friday’s leadership ballot. As a Turnbull loyalist, Mr Birmingham could have expected demotion.
Instead Mr Morrison’s victory, by a narrow margin in a party room ballot on 24 August, takes the heat out of the allocation of cabinet positions.
Rather than settling scores, Mr Morrison is likely to look for stability – even though a spat over the funding of Catholic schools, another Birmingham responsibility, has been a major political headache for the government.
Andrew Norton, higher education programme director with the Grattan Institute, said Mr Birmingham now had a reasonable chance of retaining his portfolio despite the Catholic funding imbroglio.
“There’s always a trade-off between trying to solve a political problem and putting in someone who has to get their head around a very complex portfolio in a very short period of time,” Mr Norton said.
The failed tilt by Mr Dutton, considered an immigration hardliner, may also relieve fears of a downturn in international education. The Australian Financial Review reported concerns that a Dutton-led government could deter international students.
Mr Norton said this was unlikely without “substantive policy action”. But he said the “vibe” around international students had changed significantly in policy circles.
“People are drawing a connection between population congestion issues and the temporary migration programmes, of which international students are by far the biggest. Even though only Labor has actually mentioned capping [international student numbers] to date, I wouldn’t be surprised if this rebounded on international education in some way.”
Meanwhile, the body representing universities seized on the leadership change to urge a reversal of recent unpopular measures. Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said Mr Morrison should overturn the “economy-damaging cuts to universities” and “end the university funding freeze”.
“Universities are the engine room of national growth and prosperity,” she said. “It makes no sense to cut the source of our future economic growth.”