PoliticsSocial issues

Education reform to re-sit test in Senate

– by Liam Carter

Christopher Pyne’s higher education measures were sunk by the Senate two weeks ago, but look set to return in 2015 with the backing of a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to win a less-than-enthused public and a wayward upper house.

As the parliamentary calendar year drew to a close, the government targeted a range of budgetary and policy measures that they hoped would deliver a much-needed legislative win. But this was not to be, as the Senate voted down Minister Pyne’s controversial higher education reform package with 33 votes to 31.

The proposed changes revolve around a bid to deregulate universities, while charging higher interest rates on HECS debts. Amendments were to provide scholarships for students in regional areas.

This essentially would allow universities to charge higher fees for courses, which would in turn saddle graduates with far larger debt. This would be particularly true for those choosing studies in areas such as medicine, a degree that could cost over $250,000 should the reforms pass.

Additionally, some potential university students will be discouraged to even seek higher education as a result of the massive financial burden they would face. While the jury is still out on the possible reality of “$100,000 degrees”, the changes would certainly mean a more expensive and exclusive American-style education system.

But Mr Pyne seems to have made his New Year’s resolution a month early. He declared on The 7.30 Report that he would be introducing a near-identical bill to Parliament the next morning, allowing the Senate to mull it over during the Christmas break. Accompanying this new-old bill is a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign that will “help to counter any myths and misconceptions about the current higher education system”, according to the Minister’s office.

The advertisements hit the airwaves declaring, “Uni graduates can earn 75% more than school leavers and have more career opportunities.” These ads have been cleared by government agencies on the basis that the information is objective, contains no party logos and is not seeking political advantage for a particular individual or party.

Opponents to deregulation have cried foul, with the opposition stating that “no amount of slick advertising will make this look any better.” PUP’s Glenn Lazarus even went so far as to label it “an expensive propaganda campaign”.

But it is public opinion that these ads really seek to alter. An Essential opinion poll released on December 2 showed that only 23% of Australians thought that the Senate should pass the bill.

This will be the real challenge for the minister as he plays an increasingly shrill game of tug-of-war with public opinion, the cross-bench senators caught between a Ministerial rock and an electoral hard place. And with a Cabinet reshuffle on the horizon, Pyne will be seeking to improve his standing in the ministry by passing his education package. Although Pyne is unlikely to lose his portfolio, a reshuffle may serve as shock therapy to underperforming ministers.

In an increasingly volatile and unpredictable political climate, one thing is for certain: the government faces an uphill battle in their quest for an overhaul of Australia’s higher education model.

Photo credit: Policy Express via Flickr

One comment
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