Pyne’s last-ditch compromise fails to sway crossbench

Education Minister Christopher Pyne said he is ‘not prepared to let these reforms be drowned out by distractions’. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a last-ditch effort to try to save the government’s plan to deregulate university fees, which faces defeat in the Senate.

Pyne said that the legislation would be split, hiving off a proposed 20% cut to the Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding for universities. A new bill for this will be debated in the budget session.

Pyne has also withdrawn his threat, repeated in the strongest terms as recently as Sunday, to take away the proposed A$150 million funding for scientific research. This would have seen 1700 jobs go.

The threat to the money for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which funds facilities providing services to other scientific researchers, had especially outraged crossbenchers, who accused Pyne of blackmail and holding scientists hostage.

But, on early indications, the compromise appears unlikely to be enough to sway crucial crossbenchers. Independent senator Nick Xenophon said he was not convinced. “Deregulation is an irrevocable step. Once you deregulate you can’t put the genie back into the bottle.”

A spokesman for Jacqui Lambie said she’d still be voting against the bill. A spokesman for independent Glenn Lazarus said he would also continue to oppose the bill – “he’s made it clear he’s against the deregulation of fees”.

A spokeswoman for Palmer United Party senator Dio Wang said he was still not supporting the bill.

Pyne told a news conference: “I am not prepared to let these reforms be drowned out by distractions and it is clear to me that the bill will not pass the Senate in its current form.”

The minister appeared with the chief of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, who said that the lobby group, which represents the nation’s universities, had been particularly concerned about the proposed level of the government funding cut per student. “In a deregulated fee environment the greater the cut, the more universities need to increase their fees simply to tread water or offset that cut.

"So we are very pleased today to hear that the government has finally listened to that point and has removed the 20% cut, or split the bill, so there will be no 20% cut,” Robinson said.

Universities Australia is strongly backing deregulation.

Although Pyne insisted that the government was still committed to the 20% cut – which represents a $1.9 billion saving over the budget period – it seems unlikely it would have the numbers to get that bill through later. That would mean another massive hole in the budget.

University of Melbourne higher education policy analyst Gwilym Croucher said many universities would support Pyne’s compromise. Not tying the funding cuts to deregulation would reduce the pressure on universities to raise fees by a significant amount to make up the funding shortfall, he said.

“If this was passed it gives a deregulated system a better chance of working to the benefit of everybody,” Croucher said.

He said the passage of deregulation without funding cuts should force universities to be more competitive to the benefit of students, meaning the government would have a much stronger reason to reduce funding.

“This could cost the government a significant amount of money. A lot of universities and a lot of students should be wary that if this does pass there could be further significant cuts in the future,” he said.