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Pyne fails to deliver any surprises in the higher education budget

Despite being rolled twice, the budget is trying again with fee deregulation. AAP/Julian Smith

You couldn’t kill me with an axe. I’m going to keep coming back

said Federal Education Minister Chistopher Pyne in March. And given the budget measures supporting the twice-defeated university fee deregulation agenda persist, it seems this is the case.

The axe, however, is pretty blunt. Today’s budget fails to provide any new incentives to a Senate that is going to need a strong reason to give the deregulation bill a third run. It retains the assumption that domestic undergraduate fees will be deregulated from January 1 next year. The $1.9 billion in savings measures tied to last year’s proposed 20% funding cut are also still assumed.

But can fee-deregulation be brought back to life? A key issue for the Senate was the proposal to cut the $150 million National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, or NCRIS (that supports work at major research facilities). The NCRIS has been saved for another year, but this has been achieved by taking $150m from the Sustainable Research Excellence initiative (SRE, that helps universities with the costs of supporting research grant winners). Such hubris.

Prior to the budget Pyne told us to expect a surprise. He also infamously christened himself the “fixer”.

To get the deregulation legislation through, Pyne needed to pull something special out of the box. We opened it, and found a damp squib.

A better conversation about higher education needed

The upside for the sector – insofar as there is one – is that the debate about undergraduate fee deregulation legislation has brought higher education into the social conversation in a way not seen in 25 years.

For the government, though, this has not been the kind of conversation it may have hoped for. Vice-chancellors were on-side, at least until they grew tired of the charade, but the public response has been largely negative, tied in to the widespread feeling that the 2014 budget was just too unfair.

The government’s arguments around fee deregulation failed to hit the mark. Ironically, the minister tried the anti-elite angle – uni graduates earn so much that it is only fair that we slug them with higher fees. For the punter in the street, this just doesn’t ring true.

Close to 40% of young people attend university – close to the target set by the Bradley Review. When most of our present MPs and senators were at uni only about 40% of young people finished Year 12.

Today, 1.2 million Australians are attending higher education. That’s a lot of voters who know someone, or are someone, who can see that the connection between higher education and wealth is hazy at best.

What has been missing from Australian politics for a good quarter of a century is any kind of vision for higher education. Something more profound than “user pays”, and deeper than “40% attainment is important for productivity”.

Tonight we were offered the promise that HECS debts would be chased when the debtor moves overseas (this should have happened in the original HECS legislative package in 1989). We’ve also been assured that the $4 million Lomborg “Consensus Centre” on climate change will find a home, somewhere (not the University of Western Australia, we can assume).

Old news and outdated thinking. No new ideas. For universities, this means another year of uncertainty.

Read more of The Conversation’s Federal Budget 2015 coverage.

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