FRAN KELLY: The higher education reforms are due to be debated in the Senate today and if they don’t get to them today they will get to them this week. Without the support of Labor or the Greens, the Education Minister Christopher Pyne needs six of the eight crossbenchers on his side to get his changes through. And that won’t be easy and would likely mean significant amendments to the bills. How far is the minister prepared to compromise? That remains the key question. The universities want to see this legislation passed, but they’re calling for changes too.
Belinda Robinson is the CEO of the peak body Universities Australia. Belinda Robinson welcome to Breakfast.
BELINDA ROBINSON: Good morning Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Belinda, you – as I understand it – you say there’s a consensus of universities who want change, but they don’t want all of the Government’s offering. So what is it that the universities are almost unanimous in wanting changed?
BELINDA ROBINSON: I think Fran, in the first instance; universities are unanimous around recognising that – to put it most simply, that the demand for a high quality university system is simply outstripping the capacity of the system to pay for it. And it’s very clear to universities that successive governments have found it increasingly difficult to justify the expenditure on universities to taxpayers and so there’s a general recognition that it’s time to have a look at how we do this differently.
FRAN KELLY: Having a look at how you do things differently though does not mean everyone is agreed that deregulation is the answer. I mean we’ve spoken to Stephen Parker from the University of Canberra before; he, as I understand it, is not convinced.
BELINDA ROBINSON: Well, there are a variety of views out there of course about what changes are required, but there is general consensus amongst the university sector that if we’re going to have a financially sustainable system we do need to look very seriously at fee deregulation. But that’s not to say that the university sector supports the Government proposals as they’re currently put forward and in fact there is a need – not just – there is a need to balance affordability to the taxpayer with affordability for students. And so what the university sector is saying well, yes we can see that there is a case for fee deregulation, we are convinced that there is a case for fee deregulation, but there does – we do need to go back and revisit, for example, the proposals being put forward in relation to the student loans scheme.
We also need to look very seriously at the magnitude of the cuts being proposed by government. So government are proposing a 20 per cent cut to the funding per student for tuition and that means that in a fee deregulated environment, fees would need to increase by around 30 per cent simply to offset that cut. So clearly the less or the lower that cut, the less of an increase in student fees are required to offset that cut. The university sector would also argue that whenever there are proposals of this magnitude and complexity where government policy results in significant structural change to any sector, that there’s – that it’s incumbent on that government and a responsibility in fact to provide structural adjustment to maximise the chance of success, to enable, in this case, universities to find their place of best fit, to have time to identify where their strengths are, where their comparative advantages are and to ensure that they’re not able – that they’re able to not only survive in the new environment but in fact to thrive and meet the quality expectations of students and the broader community.
FRAN KELLY: Okay. So that’s what you want. In fact I think it’s fair to say that the vice-chancellors, even those who’ve been lobbying for deregulation, got a bit of a shock on Budget night that there were also the changes that would hike up the fees for students – the HECS debt for students and the degree of a cut to the higher education budget. Have you got any sign from the Government that they are prepare to work with the Senate if the crossbenchers do what you’re asking them to do and go for these amendments? And what sort of cut to the budget do you think would be acceptable to the university sector and perhaps to the crossbenchers?
BELINDA ROBINSON: Look, I think the Government has made it very clear on a number of occasions and Minister Pyne in particular has made it clear that he’s willing to make compromises to see these reforms go through. Just what they’re willing to compromise and negotiate on I guess remains to be seen. It will be determined by the nature of the negotiations that take place. I mean there have been a number of statements in relation to the student loans scheme and revisiting the interest rate to that.
FRAN KELLY: It sounds like the cut to the budget is important though in terms of how students will be paying for their fees.
BELINDA ROBINSON: Yeah and look, we would say to that Fran, that we acknowledge that there are pressures on the budget, but if this is a genuine reform then we need to look at this perhaps as something slightly longer term than simply a cost saving in the forward estimates period. And that if we’re talking about genuine concern maybe there needs – maybe the savings can be a little bit less as we start – as we begin the process of reform to ensure that we can maximise the success of those reforms and take a slightly longer-term view.
FRAN KELLY: Can I just ask you finally; one of the key crossbenchers, Jacqui Lambie, from the Palmer United Party, has basically implied that the minister tried to do a separate deal for Tasmanian unis. In a sense she says it was – she thought it was a bribe. And then she was briefed by the University of Tasmania about its expansion plans for Launceston and Burnie, which had not been made public. Do you think that’s an appropriate way to be conducting negotiations that she felt like this?
BELINDA ROBINSON: Look, that’s really speculation and Fran I couldn’t comment on that because I’m not aware of the facts. I’m not aware that the University of Tasmania have actually met with Jacqui Lambie on that issue, but as I say, I can’t really comment on any negotiations that may or may not have taken place.
FRAN KELLY: Okay.
BELINDA ROBINSON: But I think what’s important is that we really recognise that for the longer term, if we are going to ensure that the quality of the system for the longer term, if we’re going to be able to meet the expectations of students, if we’re going to be able to ensure the community and employers of the standard of our graduates, we do need to take this opportunity. And we would encourage crossbenchers to see this as a real opportunity to leave a legacy that will fundamentally shape the future of higher education for the better.
FRAN KELLY: Belinda Robinson thanks very much for joining us.
BELINDA ROBINSON: Thank you Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Belinda Robinson is the CEO of Universities Australia.
You can listen to this interview here.