The “strong” regional flavour of Australia’s newly configured government, including Dan Tehan’s appointment as new education and training minister, could boost higher education provision in country areas, lobbyists say.
The Regional Universities Network said that Mr Tehan, who holds the south-western Victorian electorate of Wannon, would introduce “an understanding of regional education and issues” that could expedite unfinished business from a recent review of rural education.
“We urge him to provide adequate funding for regional campuses to grow to meet the increasing demand and need for higher education,” said RUN chairman Greg Hill.
A former farmhand and diplomat, and most recently the social services minister, Mr Tehan has been transferred to the education portfolio as part of a Cabinet cleanout by new prime minister Scott Morrison.
Mr Tehan replaces longstanding education and training minister Simon Birmingham, who has been given the portfolios of trade, tourism and investment.
Mr Birmingham was well regarded in tertiary education for putting an end to multibillion-dollar training loan scams. While his cuts to university funding caused resentment, they were not as disruptive as the changes proposed by his predecessor Christopher Pyne, and government pressure to reduce spending had left him with little choice.
However, Mr Birmingham also presided over a bruising conflict with the Catholic sector over new school funding arrangements. This, along with energy policy and company tax, was among the policy headaches that helped bring leadership tensions in the ruling Liberal Party to a head last week and culminated in Malcolm Turnbull’s replacement by Mr Morrison.
The Australian Financial Review reported that Mr Tehan, who himself went to a Catholic school, had been “slotted” into the education minister’s role to “cut a deal” with aggrieved Catholic parents. Stephen Elder, executive director of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria, said that as a regional MP Mr Tehan would be “well aware of the need of speaking to and engaging with his constituency”.
Innovative Research Universities executive director Conor King said higher education was “off the burner” for the government, particularly after it managed to get new student loan repayment arrangements passed by parliament earlier this month.
“Higher education has not been mentioned as one of those things to tidy up,” Mr King said. “School funding will presumably be Mr Tehan’s main focus for some time.”
Mr Morrison has emphasised “stability” as a cornerstone of his fledgling government, suggesting that Mr Tehan is likely to persist with Mr Birmingham’s reform programme. Mr King said that while university groups would urge a resumption of the demand-driven university funding system, which the government froze last December, he did not expect Canberra to change its position.
Mr Tehan will also have to grapple with unfinished business from Mr Birmingham’s reforms, including finding a new way to allocate government-supported postgraduate and sub-bachelor places. The mechanism, to be based on institutional outcomes and industry needs, was supposed to be in place by next January.
The former assistant minister for vocational education and skills, Karen Andrews, has been elevated to the industry, science and technology portfolio. Former employment minister Michaelia Cash has been handed responsibility for vocational education.
The government has a daunting task ahead of it, with a new opinion poll suggesting support for the Liberal-National party coalition is at its lowest level in a decade.