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Christopher Pyne's speech on higher education reform a missed opportunity

Date

Stephen Parker

Education Minister Christopher Pyne at the National Press Club.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne at the National Press Club. Photo: Andrew Meares

Christopher Pyne's National Press Club speech on Wednesday was an opportunity for the Education Minister to show an open mind and recognise there could be valid and genuinely held alternative views on a package of higher education changes that will transform the sector completely and irreversibly.

Regrettably, this opportunity was not taken up. In fact, he dug himself in further by claiming the package was "essential for the future prosperity of the nation", which makes one wonder why it wasn't mentioned in the election campaign last September.

I am a vice-vhancellor who has progressively moved towards a position of outright opposition to the changes as my hopes of an acceptable compromise have diminished. These hopes are now at near vanishing point, so even if I am the only one in the sector, I think it right to distance myself from what appears to be the negotiating stance of Universities Australia and condemn the measures as a complete package, even if there are individual details that could be acceptable.

Students seem almost incidental to the debate, but I think they should be at the centre of it. We are about to inflict grievous damage on the prospects of a generation of young Australians by saddling them with enormous debt; and this is being shrugged off as a mildly distasteful consequence.

When Columbia University's Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winner for economics, urges Australia not to take this direction, as he did last month, citing his own country as an example of what to avoid, we should listen. And if I have to choose between Stiglitz and Pyne, I go for Stiglitz.

Even if the worst of the proposals concerning the HECS-HELP scheme is ameliorated (ie the proposal for compound interest at the bond rate with no suspension possibility and no debt-ceiling), fee deregulation will push up the average level of student debt considerably. It has to, because so many universities are supporting fee deregulation in order to fund their future research.

Why on earth today's students should fund a university's research tomorrow is quite beyond me. Thank heavens this is Canberra 2014, not Paris 1968.

We are told, yet again, that there will be an extra 80,000 higher education students a year supported by the Commonwealth. There won't be. Some of these places are for sub-degrees, and many of the kinds of students who would enrol in sub-degrees are enrolling straight into degrees instead. Whichever kind of course they choose, they won't be extra numbers in higher education.

Furthermore, even if it would be better for students who are less academically ready to go into diplomas first, if a university is going to receive 100 per cent of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme amount for a bachelor place and, say, 60-70 per cent, for a sub-degree place, why would it divert students in this way? It would be better to provide added support to first-year bachelors students who need it and draw on the higher rate of funding.

I don't know where the rest of the 80,000 students are going to come from. My impression is that we have nearly exhausted the eligible population, and we are already doing damage to the vocational sector. We will end up a nation of degree-holders who can't find a plumber, unless they retrain to become one (and probably, by then, increase their earning power). There will be a declining rate of return for a bachelor degree at the same time as an increasing level of debt. There will be a backlash, I assure you, but it will be too late.

On Wednesday, Pyne made a plea to the Senate crossbenchers to support the reforms. I make a plea to them to reject them outright, and then have a sensible conversation about the future of higher education.

The government might now be listening to Professor Bruce Chapman over the HECS scheme, but why didn't they ask him beforehand, as the obvious world expert, right on our doorstep? The National Commission of Audit called for a conversation about fee deregulation which might take up to 12 months. Why didn't the government do this, instead of launching into a massive proposal that it hadn't flagged a few months earlier at a federal election?

The fact is, we don't know what we are getting ourselves into, the whole thing is rushed, universities are being cajoled into a compromise position so as to try and salvage something from the mess, and we are jumping at our own shadows.

An earlier generation of vice-chancellors would have stood up for students. I say, reject the whole set of proposals, on their behalf, and then let's talk.

Professor Stephen Parker is the vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra.

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