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Four things the new minister should do on higher education

A change in minister needs to mean a change in tack with regard to higher education. Sam Mooy/AAP

Four things the new minister should do on higher education

The Abbott government’s university deregulation reforms were regarded by some as a necessary progression to ensure the future success of Australian higher education.

For others, they were an assault on the idea of “the public university” and contained many potential dangers. Irrespective of the policy content, the political process has been turbulent.

The road to reforming higher education

After the failed Liberal Party leadership spill in February, Tony Abbott promised “good government would start today”. However it never began for university reform – which exemplifies the failures in political management and policy development that characterised the Abbott administration.

This involved poor policy formulation and no effective dialogue with crossbench senators to bring them onside. The reforms increasingly didn’t look like a consistent or viable policy package for universities, having been beset by several instances of backtracking from the outset.

Despite multiple attempts to get the reforms implemented, even after Christopher Pyne claimed to have “fixed it” by removing the barriers, the Senate would not pass them.

The trigger to break the gridlock came on September 14 when Tony Abbott was ousted by the more pragmatic Malcolm Turnbull. The subsequent reshuffle saw Pyne move out of Education and Simon Birmingham move in.

This change in personnel provided scope for compromise or even change to university reform. The change in leadership style led some to speculate to what extent this would result in change to policy substance.

Although Turnbull has promised to be more consultative, persuasive and to explain things in ways that respects the intelligence of the public, he also stressed no major changes in policy. Understandably at this stage of the parliament, the prime minister doesn’t want to fundamentally change direction.

Although there has to be a fresh start, Turnbull has to balance this alongside the politics within the Liberal parliamentary party – particularly accommodating the right of the party.

Within a week of Turnbull becoming prime minister, the opposition tactically sought to move higher education up the political agenda. In a speech on September 21, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten announced a new Labor policy for university reform while reaffirming the powerful political message the Coalition’s proposals would mean A$100,000 degrees.

Labor’s policy would involve more spending, lower fees and improving student retention rates.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wants to make higher education an election issue. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

In the ethos of the new Turnbull government, it initially appeared university reform might proceed with new opportunities for compromise. Birmingham announced the reforms, which would be discussed by the new cabinet, were not ready to die.

Then, on October 1, Birmingham announced the reforms would be shelved until at least 2017, after the next federal election. Higher education therefore emerged as the first major area of policy discontinuity from Abbott to Turnbull.

It’s not difficult to find reasons why the new government would wish to bury the unpopular and problematic deregulation reforms as bad news. If Labor wants to make universities an issue, there are political and electoral advantages for the Coalition of not pursuing the reforms to neutralise this threat.

It removes a potential disagreement with the Senate and saves the new prime minister the embarrassment of having his legislation defeated there. Finally, the reforms now appear tired and compromised, having been attempted many times by an unpopular government, so trying to revive them just before a federal election may not be appealing.

Although opponents of the reforms will be relieved, many university leaders may be frustrated at the extent to which higher education policy has been the victim of the political events of this parliament. The shelving also raises the question of where does this now leave Australian universities?

Pyne’s rhetoric for reform – that Australian universities would fall into an inevitable decline of mediocrity resulting in them being devalued and experiencing a global ranking implosion – was overstated. Australian higher education is by, international standards, excellent. And Australian universities are well placed.

However, that certainly doesn’t mean having no higher education policy at all is a good thing. The issue of funding and ensuring the enduring international competitiveness of Australian universities will eventually have to be addressed. It must be remembered the Abbott government reforms haven’t been completely abandoned, they’ve merely been put “on hold”. At least some aspects of the reforms will probably resurface in the next parliament.

Where to now on university reform?

Future ministers can learn from the mistakes made by the Abbott government. Policy development should involve learning from these experiences and other countries where university reform has been successfully achieved.

First, there needs to credible analysis of the status quo followed by a clear and effective public articulation of the case for change. This should avoid conflating deregulating fees with reducing public funding.

Second, the proposals need to be consistent and coherent without backtracking or blackmailing. Threatening to cut research spending if you don’t get your way on tuition fees doesn’t make any minister look like they genuinely are working in the best interests of universities.

Third, people need to be convinced the reforms will work in practice. One way of doing this is not to do everything at once. For example, fee deregulation doesn’t necessarily have to take place at the same time as increasing the interest the government charges on student loans. A more gradual approach means the consequences of one change can be better understood before another is introduced.

Fourth, there is the need to build a consensus and consider the parliamentary situation to ensure a feasible framework to enable Australian universities to prosper can be implemented.