Two senior ministers in the Gillard government resigned today, prompting an unexpected cabinet reshuffle just eight months out from the general election.
Nicola Roxon resigned her role as Attorney-General, to be replaced by Victorian MP, Mark Dreyfus, QC.
Senator Chris Evans resigned as Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research and will be replaced by former Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. The new Immigration Minister will be Brendan O'Connor.
Universities Australia, the peak body for the the nation’s universities, thanked Senator Evans for his work and welcomed Senator Bowen to the role.
“Universities Australia looks forward to working with Mr Bowen on an agenda that realises the full potential of Australia’s world-class universities in securing the nation’s long-term economic and social well-being,” said Professor Glyn Davis, Chair of Universities Australia.
“Senator Evans can be proud of his achievements in the sector. There is no doubt that the Minister was a strong and committed advocate of the benefits of higher education.”
Professor Davis said that, since assuming the role in 2010, Mr Evans had overseen the implementation of several recommendations of the Bradley review into higher education, removed caps on the number of university places and an increase in higher education investment.
“Senator Evans’ commitment to developing a more equitable university system is without precedent and the personal energy and drive that he devoted to achieving this goal is to be commended,” said Professor Davis.
Work by Mr Bowen and Mr Evans had led to a more streamlined visa system that would help increase the number of international students in Australia, he said.
Crucially, Mr Evans and former Science Minister Senator Kim Carr had Australia win a a bid to jointly host the world’s biggest ever telescope, the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, described by Professor Davis as one of the most far reaching scientific projects in history.
“The significance of this project is probably something that most Australians do not appreciate but it has been a massive achievement for the Australian Government,” he said.
The Australian Technology Network of Universities also commended the outgoing higher education minister for his work.
“In his resignation speech today, Chris identified the widening participation reform as a major achievement during his time as Minister and he can quite rightly – and proudly – claim this,” said ATN Chair and Vice Chancellor of Curtin University, Professor Jeanette Hacket, adding that she looked forward to working with Mr Bowen.
Professor Simon Marginson, from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, welcomed Mr Bowen to the higher education portfolio but said that the government needed to do more.
“Chris Bowen has been one of the most effective Ministers in the Rudd and Gillard governments. He understands complex issues - no portfolio is more difficult than immigration. He is well informed, he listens, and he communicates very effectively. We are fortunate to have him as Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research,” said Professor Marginson.
“The latest raft of policy announcements - the Sustainable Research Excellence budget cuts, the rejection of the substance of the Base Funding Review report - suggest the government has lost its way on higher education and research,” he said.
“It blocked the implementation of its own previously announced policy, solely for macro-fiscal reasons, and put no new policy in place. There is still time before the next election to fix this and Chris Bowen is the one to do it.”