Pyne’s Higher Education reforms

Vice Chancellor Stephen Parker: Pyne’s higher education reforms doomed to failure

Christopher Pyne and I were on diametrically opposite sides over the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill and its associated Senate Committee inquiries, so the reader needs to interpret my comments in this light. 

Minster Pyne repeatedly said I was the only one of 41 “vice-chancellors” who did not support his reforms.  In the House of Representatives he was critical of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the University of Canberra, implying that its findings were biased because I was in charge of the university in which it was housed.  Even Tony Abbott acknowledged subsequently that NATSEM was one of the best-regarded modelling organisations in the country. So I guess I do have a starting point in this analysis!

I believe Christopher Pyne’s failed attempts at higher education reform is almost a textbook example of how not to get complex and controversial reforms through the Australian parliament. The Coalition did not control the Senate and did not spend time getting to know the people who held the balance of power.

The proposal to cut 20% funding to universities, partly to save money and partly to extend Commonwealth Supported Places to private higher education providers and sub-bachelor places, came out of the blue and flagrantly breached pre-election promises that there would be no cuts to education and no change to university funding arrangements.

Then there was the proposal to retrospectively apply a real interest rate to existing HECS debtors (when debts have been linked to CPI since the inception of the scheme).  I don’t think this really hit home to people. Hundreds of thousands of voters would have had a debt hike they could do nothing about. It was a real sleeper.

Let’s get on to allowing universities to charge domestic undergraduates what they wished, without any valid modelling of the impact on debt levels, or how young people would make choices in the light of an income-contingent loan scheme.  I use the word “valid”. I don’t actually know whether any modelling at all was done, because the nation’s experts could not say what the impact would be. Their best guess on fees was a doubling or trebling of levels, but it was only a guess.

Yes, the idea to apply the real rate of interest on HECS debts was dropped. It was a relief to many, but it also scuppered any logic to the scheme.  If the government were to borrow money at the long-term bond rate and lend it to students at a lower rate (in circumstances when default would also rise) then the changes would cost money not save it.   The more fees went up, the bigger the gap between the price of money to the Government and the amounts recouped. This was why I described the situation by December 2014 as “ideology in search of a problem”.

My colleague Ben Phillips pointed out that tertiary fees are part of the CPI basket, so a rise in higher education tuition fees would mean that a whole range of benefits and payments would also rise. He did not get a response to his observation from the Abbott government. By this stage we were talking about a scheme that would lose billions.  It couldn’t have lasted.  It would have inflicted debt on several cohorts of graduates until Treasury realised what was happening.  By this stage (circa February 2015) I was no longer sure it was ideology in search of a problem: it just seemed like it was all about saving the Minister’s skin, despite his self-proclaimed fixer status.

I could go on (I do, in fact, often) but suffice it to say this was policy by ambush, trimmed on the run in the face of evidence, and personalised in the face of opposition.

I welcome Labor’s intention, announced on Monday, to set up a Higher Education Commission, which would introduce a non-political rational actor to higher education reform, and to use Green and White Papers to allow reasoned debate.


Stephen-Parker1 copyProfessor Stephen Parker AO is the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra. He was previously the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Monash University in Melbourne. 

Prior to taking up senior management positions Stephen was a legal academic.  He has lectured at University College Cardiff, the Australian National University, Griffith University and Monash University.  He was Dean of Law at Monash from 1999 to 2003. 

Stephen moved to Australia from the UK in 1988, having mixed lecturing and legal practice over the previous decade.  He graduated with honours in Law from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and a Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of Wales.  He is admitted to legal practice in England and Wales, the ACT and Queensland

Stephen has published books, monographs and articles on the court system, legal ethics, family law and children’s rights.  He is also the co-author of a textbook called Law in Context, which is designed to introduce law students to the way that other disciplines view law.

He has held various major research grants in relation to projects on lawyers’ tactics, lawyers’ values, discretionary rules, family law, judicial independence and reform of civil procedure.  In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law.

Stephen was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) as part of the Australia Day Honours in January 2014 for his distinguished service to tertiary education through administrative, academic and representational roles, and as a leader in the growth and development of the University of Canberra.

Teacher selection and education set to be worst hit by Pyne’s uni fee deregulation

I believe it is of great importance that we preserve the public charter of our tertiary sector and that it is sufficiently supported by public funding. Current proposals to deregulate university fees would reduce federal commitment to supporting universities financially and thereby diminish universities as public institutions.

Most importantly, if fees are deregulated, there are major issues of concern for the education faculties within our universities. These are the faculties that train our nation’s teachers. I want to air these issues and would love to see some public debate around them.

Education is an essential public work, clearly designed to benefit community and nation rather than just directed towards the increased prosperity and status of individual graduates.

The federal propaganda describing its rationale for fee increases misrepresents the case of individual benefit from university degrees. Supposedly students should pay higher fees because they are the ones who benefit.

So it is important to set the record straight about the personal, and in particular the financial, benefits of getting a degree, especially a degree in education. Some decades ago when University was the privilege of less than 5% of the population it was true that graduates were able to attract greater incomes than non-graduates.  However this was hardly ever true for education degrees.

In current times the situation of graduates receiving higher incomes is even less clear.  With a significantly larger proportion of young people attending, university income differentials are more closely related to what you studied, where you studied and when you graduated.

Education graduates, the majority of whom find jobs as schoolteachers, are rarely among the high earners.

We already have evidence to support the claim that students are not coming to careers in education for the financial rewards. These students are not recognized in the current politicised representation of why you go to university.

In addition, in the current cash strapped university, education faculties have been required to accept increasingly large numbers of students as the whole university funding depends on filling quotas and it is relatively cheap to educate future teachers.

So any negativity directed at education faculties for accepting low entry scores should really be aimed at the current funding system. I believe this will only get worse if fees are deregulated.

Education faculties are frequently pushed to take in the maximum number of students by university management. Somehow education continues as the poor relation within the university as the faculty functions as ‘the cash cow’ with constantly large enrolments requiring relatively low cost resources, but so often with little representation in senior management.

And yet the work the university teachers of teachers do is so evidently in the public interest.  Not only do they undertake the essential role of preparing the nation’s teachers, they are also responsible for the development of future citizens. Schooling has a unique capacity for community building at all social levels.

Schools Australia-wide have been recognized for their achievements in working with multicultural students to build a sense of belonging and common purpose along with responsible community membership. And yet, despite this ongoing essential work, education becomes the whipping post for public criticism far more often than other university courses.

The life of an education graduate contrasts fundamentally with the current government’s adherence to the depiction of university as the training ground for a life of social and economic privilege. The fact that students continue to want to teach is one indication of the value they place in contributing to the public good and following their dream of leading a meaningful and productive life.

Like many others who are working, or have worked, in our universities preparing students to undertake a career in teaching, I am worried about the future for all Australians if fees increase for education degrees and if universities need to rely even more on their education faculties to bring in the cash.

I believe that eroding the public charter of our universities will have a great and negative effect, most particularly on the education of our nation’s teachers.


JudithGillJudith Gill PhD is currently an  Adjunct A/Professor in the  School of Education at the  University of South Australia where she worked for 25 years in teacher education. She has a longstanding interest in gender, work and education, particularly in terms of  gender contexts of learning, which has involved investigating the experience of students in single sex school compared with coeducation, leading to the book Beyond the Great Divide: Single sex schooling or coeducation? (Sydney, UNSW Press 2004).  Another line of enquiry is citizenship education  as in the 2009 book Knowing Our Place: Children talking about identity, power and citizenship. (Routledge NY). More recently she has investigated engineering education, as seen in Gender Inclusive Engineering Education (NY Routledge 2009) and Challenging Knowledge, Sex and Power: Gender, work and engineering (NY Routledge 2014)