University fee deregulation blocked but Pyne pledges to fight on

Despite months of lobbying and an 11th-hour bid at compromise, Christopher Pyne has failed to negotiate the passage of his university reforms through the Senate. AAP/Mick Tsikas

The Senate has defeated the government’s plan to deregulate university fees 34 votes to 30, with Labor, the Greens and five of the other eight crossbenchers combining to vote against it.

Despite months of lobbying and an 11th-hour bid at compromise, Education Minister Christopher Pyne secured only three of the six crossbenchers he needed to pass the reforms.

Independent senators Glenn Lazarus, Jacqui Lambie and Nick Xenophon, the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir and the Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang voted against. Those supporting were Family First’s Bob Day, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and independent John Madigan.

Pyne said in a statement after the Tuesday evening vote that the government would bring the reform package back to the parliament. “We will not give up. This reform is too important. We will continue to work with senators and others who wish to be part of a constructive discussion.”

Pyne accused Labor of blocking a budget bill for “base political purposes”.

Earlier, Pyne declared: “I am a fixer”.

“You couldn’t kill me with an axe,” Pyne said. “I’m going to keep coming back.”

Pyne said Labor and the Greens were saying they knew better than every peak body and “40 out of 41 chancellors”. But Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr said the “political acumen of some of the vice-chancellors is open to question”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, speaking at the meeting of the Coalition parties on Tuesday morning, described the Senate as “feral”.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten and Carr said in a statement after the vote that because of Labor’s resolve, young Australians, their families and universities had been protected from the devastating impact of the Liberals’ cuts and the burden of $100,000 degrees.

“Tonight’s vote is yet another humiliating failure for Christopher Pyne, who has lost all credibility with the Australian people as a result of his so-called negotiations, which were based entirely on bullying and blackmail,” they said.

“Labor will continue to fight the Americanisation of our university system, and we will prevail.”

Greens spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon said the defeat of the plan for a second time – the Senate rejected it in December – “is a tribute to community action. It sends a strong signal to this cruel, out of touch Abbott government. Their elitist dreams for Australia do not have the support of the Senate or the people.”

Lambie, who left her sickbed to be present for the vote, said she would never embrace deregulation. Pyne should take the plan to the next election “and see how you go with that”, she said.

Universities Australia said the rejection of the package “opens the way for a national discussion on a long-term, sustainable and predictable funding model for university education and research”.

“The almost year-long debate has achieved a remarkable political consensus on one critical factor – that the current state of public investment in universities is insufficient for maintaining and enhancing the quality expected by students, employers and the community,” the chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, said.

“The parliament gives bipartisan support for national security and defence in the public interest. This consensus should extend to the intellectual building blocks of our economic security.”

Responding to calls for higher education to be fought out in an election, Robinson said this policy “is too important to be allowed to become a Frankenstein-ian by-product of pre-election political positioning”.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said it had been depressing to see a legislative package so crucial to the nation’s future become a political football.

The nation’s third-largest export industry was being placed at risk, she said. “Our quality is what makes us a student destination. That quality cannot be maintained with current funding.

"What we are left to manage is a broken system, one where there is a deregulated intake of students but a regulated fee structure and much reduced Government funding. It simply cannot work,” Thomson said.

“It is now important that alternatives which address the critical issues facing the sector and our students are considered by our political leaders,” Thomson said.

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