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12 March 2015

Christopher Pyne blames Labor for education reforms surprise

Education minister says Labor abandonment of planned university savings forced him to embark on program of sweeping change that was not discussed before election.

Christopher Pyne has pointed the finger at Labor as he sought to justify the Coalition’s failure to tell voters about plans to make sweeping changes to the university sector.

In a speech to university leaders in Canberra on Wednesday night, the education minister addressed the government’s lack of an electoral mandate to remove limits on fees – widely seen as one of the major obstacles to securing public and parliamentary support for the package.

The Senate showed its disposition in December when it blocked the Coalition’s bill to deregulate fees, cut course subsidies by 20% on average, and extend federal government funding to sub-bachelor programs and private colleges.

There are no signs the Coalition will succeed on its second attempt to pass the package in the next fortnight of parliamentary sittings, even as it signals its preparedness to consider further compromises.

Pyne said he was “sometimes asked why the Coalition did not say before the 2013 election that it would embark on so significant a reform package”.

He sought to sheet home the blame to the opposition, citing Labor’s decision to abandon its support for Julia Gillard’s previously announced savings in the higher education sector including a proposed efficiency dividend. Those savings were originally intended to fund the Gonski school reforms.

“We and Labor both went into the 2013 election expecting to secure over $2bn in savings,” Pyne said in his address at the Universities Australia annual conference dinner.

“Frankly, this would have enabled me to argue before last year’s budget that, banking Labor’s cuts, higher education should be treated lightly in the budget.

“But all of this changed when, late in 2013, Labor decided to block its own savings, and the Senate therefore failed to pass Labor’s cuts.

“This created a new context for the 2014 budget and for higher education.”

Pyne said the Coalition, in framing its first budget, decided “it was better in every way to have a package of reforms” than to simply make cuts.

“We have taken seriously our sacred trust to serve the national interest as best we could in changing circumstances,” he said.

Labor has repeatedly accused the Coalition of breaking its promises, pointing to the pre-election pledge in the Real Solutions booklet that it would “ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding” and Tony Abbott’s comments in 2013 that universities should expect “a period of relative policy stability”.

But Pyne pointed to historical precedent, saying Bob Hawke’s Labor government “did not indicate before the 1987 election that it would reintroduce university fees” and create the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs).

Pyne also used his speech to restate the case for deregulation, saying Australia would “not get the best from our higher education system while it is characterised by a monochrome character enforced by over-regulation and central planning”.

He said the government remained open to “sensible suggestions” to improve the package and would “make further changes if well-argued and sensible”.

But the sector appears to be operating on the basis that the most likely outcome is another Senate defeat.

The chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, still held out hope of a compromise but said passage of the bill was “looking unlikely”.

In a speech to the National Press Club earlier on Wednesday, Robinson said a defeat would provide an opportunity to “regroup, re-think and reflect on higher education policy” but the sector could not afford to abandon the push for reform.

She spoke of the need “to engage more broadly with the general public and bring them into our confidence” while debating the relative benefits of policy options.

Universities Australia last year gave its qualified support to deregulating fees because it wanted to reduce the universities’ “exposure to the consequences of erratic and unpredictable policy-making” and because the existing funding model was not working, Robinson said.

Asked whether Universities Australia and vice chancellors had misjudged the public and political mood, Robinson said the Coalition’s legislation was “not our policy” and the organisation had been “trying to work with government and crossbenchers” to secure positive amendments.

“If governments are reluctant to justify the levels of expenditure that are needed to keep the system as strong as possible and to maintain its global reputation as being one of the best in the world, then the revenue has to come from somewhere,” she said.

The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, sought to lay out some markers on Labor’s likely alternative policy in a speech at Monash University on Wednesday.

Shorten outlined some general principles, including the need for the next wave of university reforms to “focus on guaranteeing quality as well as equity”.

Pyne argued that Labor was planning to restrict access by reintroducing “socially regressive” caps on the number of student places that were funded each year.

But Shorten said Labor wanted to “grow participation rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds without undermining the quality and value of a degree”.

He noted that completion rates had been falling in recent years, while there had been an increase in offers to university applicants with lower tertiary admission ranks.

“We will always support growth in the system – and reports of freezing enrolments at 2015 levels are plainly untrue,” Shorten said.

“This is not a matter of forcing down enrolment to improve quality – it is about lifting standards to catch up to the new levels of access and equity.”