Education minister Christopher Pyne just blinked on university deregulation reforms

Education minister Christopher Pyne. Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty.

Education minister Christopher Pyne has backed away from the threat that 1700 scientists would lose their jobs if his university deregulation plans were not passed by the senate, announcing today that he will separate the $150 million for science funding from the rest of the government’s education reforms.

Yesterday the minister argued the reforms and the funding were “inextricably linked” and made it clear that the money would go if the bill was not passed in the Senate this week, laying the blame for 1700 job losses at the feet of Labor and the independent senators who hold the balance of power.

“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 on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday morning.

The money is for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCIRS), which was founded by the then-Howard government 11 years ago.

But linking his reforms to $150 million in funding and threatening the money would run out after June 30 turned out to be counterproductive, with several senators describing the move as blackmail.

Senator Glenn Lazarus, who broke away from Palmer United Party on Friday to become an independent, said “this is disgusting behaviour and demonstrates the appalling ethics of this government”.

Fellow ex-PUP senator Jacqui Lambie, who is in hospital, promised to cause the minister so much political pain “he may need a dose of the intravenous antibiotic I’ve been on.”

The threat was also criticised by Nobel Prize winning Australian scientist Professor Brian Schmidt as well as Catherine Livingston, the head of the Business Council of Australia.

Today the education minister backed down.

“I’ve found the money to keep it going,” he said.

“I found the money in offsets, which will be revealed in the budget.”

However, the funding is only for 12 months and a review is currently underway into the future of government support into science research.

The government needs six of the eight crossbench senators to pass its education reform legislation, but it looks set for defeat for a second time when it goes back to the senate on Wednesday.

“I am not prepared to let these reforms be drowned out by distractions and it is clear to me that the bill will not pass the Senate in its current form,” Pyne said.

Today Christopher Pyne announced that a planned 20% cut to university funding will be separated from the key plank of his tertiary education reforms – the deregulation of university fees.

He said two debates will now be held: “one on the Government’s deregulation agenda, which we see as having extraordinary benefits for students and universities” and “a separate debate around the Government’s reduction of the Commonwealth grant scheme to gain savings”.

The funding cut will be debated later in the year and is expected to cost the budget around $1 billion and other savings of almost $2 billion are also in doubt.

The government is hoping to save $1.1 billion by reducing funding to universities, who are expected to offset the income with increased fees, which were expected to rise by nearly a third..

The education minister said he hoped the changes he was announced would remove “some of the impediments” to getting his reforms passed by the senate.

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