Having promised prior to the last election that its approach to higher education policy would be characterised by ‘masterly inactivity’, the Abbott Government surprised the whole country this time last year when it revealed the most significant changes to higher education in a generation.
Looking back now, many things are clearer. The government perhaps relied too much on the idea that change, once announced, was inevitable. The last twelve months have been a massive momentum play, with an unwavering prosecution of the benefits of reform supported by briefings designed to convey that the government was close and getting closer to securing the Senate numbers it needed.
Every now and again, the government paused to reframe the debate by lopping off elements of its reform package deemed to be non-core. First came the shelving of the much-criticised real interest rate for student debts. Later, the entire 20% funding cut which underpinned the initial package was set aside in an attempt to win over the Senate, though it lives on as government policy in the budget forward estimates.
Along the way, odd bits were bolted on to the package to appeal to the idiosyncrasies of certain Senators. The pause in indexation of student debts for the primary caregivers of children was the best example of this. A surprise financial benefit offered to the relatively well-off, this looked like the sort of middle class welfare the Treasurer was foresworn against. It did not enhance the integrity of the package as a whole.
Twice, the unstoppable force of government intent met the immovable object of Senate obstinacy. The outcomes of this painful experiment are there for all to see.
Learning from the NSW state election
Those who are reform-minded should not be disheartened. As the outcome of last weekend’s New South Wales election showed, it is possible to explain and defend difficult change.
In staking the re-election of his government on the privatisation of the state’s electricity distribution infrastructure – the so-called poles and wires – Mike Baird showed that he was prepared to explain the benefits associated with reform and to transparently seek public support for it.
The major reforms proposed by Christopher Pyne to Australia’s system of higher education deserve no less a treatment. Having been frustrated by Senators twice, it is unlikely that we will see a rapprochement in this term of Parliament. Labor will not blink on this issue and the cross-bench are now more invested in it than any other. Whether we like it or not, higher education will feature prominently at the next federal election.
The Government has an arguable case for change. Its vision is for a system of higher education which is much more diverse than it is today. Last year, the Treasurer expressed his wish to see one Australian university ranked in the Top 20 in the world. Last month, the Prime Minister doubled down on that aspiration by saying he wanted to see two universities in the Top 20. To achieve this, Australian universities will have to considerably add to their revenues to fund the high-end research required to propel them up the international rankings. This money will have to come from students. There is no other realistic source.
What’s in it for students?
What has made the reform package difficult to sell is that there appears to be little for students in return for the pain of higher fees. To be sure, an esteemed university sector benefits everyone. However, it is difficult to draw a clear link between the extra that students will pay and the benefits each will personally receive. This is why some have called for universities to be held to explicit commitments about how they will use additional revenues to support better teaching.
The government has made much of the additional opportunities that it wishes to make available to students to pursue sub-bachelor degrees. This does represent a benefit to students who would not otherwise qualify for university study. However, it is a benefit at the margins rather than to the great weight of students who will pay more under deregulation. It has not been sufficient to push the package over the line.
Making a strong case for change
What this government now needs is a ‘poles and wires’ case for higher education reform. Selling its electricity distribution assets will provide New South Wales with the money it needs to fix its roads, improve its transport system and make people’s lives easier. The Australian government needs a story just as clear on how higher education deregulation will benefit students.
If the government is not prepared to stake its exercise of power on the case for deregulation, inevitably it will have to accept reform that is more modest. This may not be a bad thing. While universities face funding pressures, Australia’s higher education system is accessible, affordable and of high quality. It remains the envy of many other countries.
If there is a case for change, the government needs to make it clearly and convincingly. People will accept and even vote for difficult reform. But it is only human to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’
Andrew Dempster is the head of corporate and government affairs at Swinburne University of Technology.
A version of this article appeared in The Australian. Read the original article.