The Senate has voted down Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s higher education measures – one of the budget’s key reforms – in a major defeat for the Abbott government.
But Pyne announced the government will immediately introduce new legislation into the House of Representatives – incorporating amendments proposed by crossbench senators – which would be passed and sent to the Senate early next year.
“Great reform takes time,” he said. “The Senate will have the Christmas holiday period to consider this new reform bill.”
Despite intense government lobbying of the key crossbench senators, the bill was defeated 33-31 on the second reading late on Tuesday. It was opposed by Labor, the Greens and crossbench senators Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang from the Palmer United Party, former PUP Jacqui Lambie and independent Nick Xenophon.
The legislation was to deregulate university fees and reduce the government’s contribution for Commonwealth supported places.
It was backed by most of the nation’s vice-chancellors and the sector’s peak lobby group Universities Australia. Coincidentally, Universities Australia was holding a reception in Parliament House as the vote was being taken.
The government had hoped to get the bill through this week so that it could salvage at least one of the important budget measures that are stuck because of Senate opposition. Pyne at various times had expressed optimism that he could persuade the crossbenchers.
The government at the last minute offered a A$400 million concession for higher education in Tasmania to try to win Lambie’s support, but she rejected the overture out of hand.
In other late concessions, the government said it would create a structural adjustment fund for universities, focused on those with large numbers of low-SES students. It would provide $100 million over three years for the fund. It would also ensure that domestic student fees must be lower than international students.
It had already agreed to keep the indexation of HECS at the consumer price index and to a HECS pause for new parents.
In an Essential poll released on Tuesday, 56% said the Senate should not agree to the legislation while 23% said it should.
Lazarus, PUP’s Senate leader – who had accused Pyne of “harassing” him with text messages – said he had spoken to Queensland universities and they did not want their funding cut. They had told him the easiest way they could make up for the shortfall would be to increase fees.
“This would only push university degrees out of reach for most Australians,” Lazarus told the Senate. Regional and rural universities would be disadvantaged compared with those in the cities, he said.
He was also concerned that some universities would increase the number of international students, so there would be fewer places for local students.
“This bill is about nothing more than budget cuts,” Lazarus said. He challenged the government to take the reforms to the next election.
Outside the Senate, Lambie urged the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir not to give in to government pressure.
Lambie said she wanted to “remind Ricky of his humble beginnings and that in six years’ time, like the rest of us, he may not have his seat.
"He has four or five children and I am sure he would like to see them have the opportunity of going to university. Putting that many kids through university will cost a fortune and it will be outside what he can afford if that be the case.”
But Muir voted with the government – despite his alliance with PUP.
Universities Australia said in a statement before the vote that it welcomed the government’s latest concessions but warned they were “insufficient to satisfy calls by the sector for substantial changes to improve fairness and affordability”.
Pyne said the government’s bill had “received the historic consensus support of the higher education sector, particularly through Universities Australia, however Labor and the Greens continue to ignore their repeated calls to support reform”.