Christopher Pyne's Higher Education Reforms Got Knocked Out In The Senate, But He's Ready To Go Again

Christopher Pyne. Photo: Getty

An eleventh-hour $400 million sweetener for the university sector in Tasmania from education minister Christopher Pyne wasn’t enough to secure independent senate Jacqui Lambie’s vote as the Government failed to get its controversial higher education reforms through the Senate last night.

The Senate rejected the higher education deregulation plans, 33-31 late on Tuesday night, after Pyne was unable to round up the crossbench senators he needs.

The defeat is another blow to the Government’s budget savings, although the $4 billion in savings won’t have a flow on effect for treasurer Joe Hockey’s mid-year economic statement, MYEFO, due out in a fortnight.

The bill was lost before it even made it to amendment stage. The Coalition was to give universities the power to set their own fees from January 2016.

The two remaining Palmer United senators, and independents Lambie and Nick Xenophon voted down the key budget measure, which deregulates university fees and reduces the federal contribution to tertiary education by 20%. Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir backed the Government, despite his alliance with PUP.

PUP senator Glenn Lazarus accused the education minister of “harassing” him with text messages as the Abbott government lobbied the crossbench relentlessly hoping to get its legislation through.

Lazarus has not met face-to-face with the minister to discuss the issue.

“This bill is about nothing more than budget cuts,” Lazarus said. “This would only push university degrees out of reach for most Australians.”

He wants the deregulation plan, which Pyne first flagged in February, taken to the next election.

Along with the $400 million for Lambie, there was also another $100 million over three years on the table for a structural adjustment package to keep Australian student fees lower than the cost for international students.

On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a softening of the Government’s stand on interest rates for student loans, with concessions for people who take time out to have a family, and HECS indexation at the CPI.

The education reforms face widespread community opposition, and fears they may lead to higher fees are damaging the Coalition’s electoral standing.

The education minister lost the battle, but not the war, with Pyne announcing the government plans to immediately introduce new legislation to the lower house this morning, incorporating a number of amendments suggested by crossbench senators.

He hopes the new legislation will hit the Senate early next year.

“Great reform takes time,” Pyne said.

In a statement released before last night’s vote, Universities Australia backed the Government’s plan to amend the legislation but said it was insufficient and substantial changes were needed to improve fairness and affordability.

The statement said:

While the creation of a very modest structural adjustment fund, a guarantee that fees for domestic students will be lower than for international students, and changes to the Government’s original proposal on student loans are a step in the right direction, these fall far short of what is required,” the statement said.

In addition to the retention of the CPI interest rate for student loans, Universities Australia reiterates its position that a substantial moderation of the proposed 20% cut to higher education funding so as to put downward pressure on fees, a $500 million structural adjustment package, and the establishment of an independent expert panel to oversee the implementation of the changes are required.

In considering the Bill, Universities Australia encourages the Senate to insist on these amendments as a minimum condition for passing the Bill.

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