Education minister Christopher Pyne is holding 1700 scientists hostage over his university funding reforms

Education minister Christopher Pyne. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty.

Education minister Christopher Pyne has warned 1700 science research jobs will go if the Senate doesn’t pass his plans to deregulate university fees.

The Government will have a second attempt at getting its education reforms through the Senate on Wednesday, but needs the support of at least six of the eight crossbenchers. Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie is currently in hospital and will miss the vote, but is expected to get a “pair” (a government senator who would have voted yes, but will abstain) to equal out her opposition to the bill.

Speaking on ABC TV’s Insiders today, Pyne called on the crossbenchers to “embrace reform and recognise that there is no credible alternative to the government’s strategy”.

He warned of a “slow decline into stagnation and mediocrity”, with decline in quality and education exports, if his deregulation plan wasn’t passed.

But the minister has linked $150 million in funding for the national collaborative research infrastructure strategy to his legislation and warned that unless his measures were passed, the science jobs would go.

“There are consequences for not voting for this reform and that’s very important for the crossbenchers to understand. The consequences are that potentially 1700 researchers will lose their jobs,” Pyne said.

He blamed Labor for defunding the scheme in the first place and said he was simply trying to find savings via deregulation to put the money back into the NCIRS.

“The savings and the spending are inextricably linked, you can’t have one without the other… if the crossbenchers vote against the savings, they can’t expect the government to come up with the spending… they will be responsible for ending it [the science funding],” the minister said.

Pyne said there is some room for negotiation.

“Everything is on the table except the centrepiece of the reform, which is deregulation… all the other matters are open to negotiation,” he said.

While the minister was optimistic about cutting a deal with the sole remaining member of the Palmer United Party, Dio Wang, after Queensland senator Glenn Lazarus quit the party on Friday, most of the independent senators remain aligned with Labor in opposition to the government’s plan.

The stalemate leaves the scientist sector as hostages.

The NCRIS involves 27 high-tech national research facilities, created by the Howard government, which have received $3.5 billion in investment over the past 11 years. Their achievements include nano-patch technology to deliver unrefrigerated vaccines without refrigeration, modelling to help in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and the weather-prediction technology.

The research also lured Australian Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt to Australia from the US. He warns of a looming calamity in science. The money runs out at the end of the financial year, less than four months away.

“We are about to take everything we have built up over a decade and crush it,” Schmidt warns.

This week, Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingstone hit out at the government during a speech at a higher education conference in Canberra.

“How have we come to a point where a government feels it can use assets, publically funded to the tune of over $2 billion, as a hostage in a political process?” Livingston asked.

“Shame on us.”