LYNDAL CURTIS: As we’ve just heard this week, the increasingly unpredictable Senate will debate the Government’s plans to deregulate university student fees. Belinda Robinson from Universities Australia says the ongoing uncertainty is making it very difficult for high school students to plan. Her organisation has issued an open letter to Senators urging them to pass the legislation with some amendments. Belinda Robinson is speaking here to political reporter Andrew Greene.
ANDREW GREENE: Belinda Robinson, welcome to Capital Hill. Today you’ve written to the crossbench Senators. What are you asking them to do in terms of the university deregulation?
BELINDA ROBINSON: We’d like them to seek amendments to the bill being proposed by the Government, amendments that would make this considerably fairer for students, make the changes more affordable. To seek those amendments and to pass the legislation.
ANDREW GREENE: So that’s an acknowledgement that as it sits at the moment it’s unfair and it will hurt students?
BELINDA ROBINSON: Well, we think there are a number of areas within the current bill that could be improved to improve fairness. We’d like to see a reduction in the 20 per cent cut to the revenue to universities. We’d like to see the student loan scheme interest indexation rate be retained at CPI.
We’d also like to see a structural adjustment package for institutions as they make this transition to a very new environment. And we think that in combination, these changes – together with the establishment of an independent expert panel, to oversee the implementation of the changes and to provide advice on any adjustments that might need to be made to the Government – we think in combination that these things would help to make the package much fairer. But at the same time acknowledge that the university system is under considerable pressure; that a new approach is needed. And if we’re going to retain a reputation for a high quality, world-class system, we do need to think about a new approach.
ANDREW GREENE: What would these changes cost the Government’s bottom line if they had to accept them?
BELINDA ROBINSON: Look, I think that’s ultimately something for Government. It’s very difficult to know what the cost impact would be. But what we would say is that if we’re going to make changes that are fairer in the longer term, it is going to reduce the cost for Government in ensuring that we can retain Australia’s status as a fantastic provider of higher education, and Australia’s third largest export industry.
ANDREW GREENE: How do you anticipate the crossbench receiving these ideas? They’ve already said, many of them that they won’t vote for the package as a whole. Do you think you can get them across the line with these changes?
BELINDA ROBINSON: We’ve been speaking to Senators for quite some months now, and they’ve indicated a strong willingness to consider the sorts of changes that might need to be made to the legislation to make it fairer. They’ve certainly worked very hard to really understand the detail of this package and it is a complex package. There’s no doubt about that, but they’ve worked very hard to understand it. We’ve had very good hearings with all of them.
It’s very clear to me that all of them feel they need to do and want to do what they feel is in the best interests of students and the nation more broadly. And I think that the sorts of changes that we’re putting forward will make a significant difference to the fairness of the package. And we’ll keep talking to them, but we would ask them to have this issue resolved by the end of the year, because the lack of certainty is having quite a profound effect on students seeking to plan for their futures.
It’s unlikely that anything new is going to emerge by further delaying this issue and the longer we delay it, the more uncertainty, the more concern, the more anxiety there will be out there. And, of course, the more we avoid the issue about how to prevent the long-term certain erosion of our higher education system.
ANDREW GREENE: This morning we’ve seen the Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie defect from her party. Quit. Does that make your job easier?
BELINDA ROBINSON: That’s obviously a matter for her and she’s made her views about the higher education package very well known. We’ll continue to work with all crossbenchers, in fact, on any issue to do with higher education and research and I guess what we would say is that the status quo is not in the best interests of Tasmanian students in the longer term. It’s not in the best interests of Tasmania and we would hope that Senator Lambie will take into consideration what the implications of a long-term steady erosion of the higher education system will be on the people of Tasmania.
ANDREW GREENE: Finally, Belinda Robinson, is it disingenuous of Education Minister Christopher Pyne to say this has overwhelming support of both universities and students?
BELINDA ROBINSON: Well, look, you know, there’s no doubt the university sector does see a very real need for change. The facts are that if we’re going to maintain a world-class higher education system, then we have to understand it as beyond the capacity of the system as it currently is to pay for it. So we do need a new approach and to that end the university sector is absolutely unified in the view that we do need to do things differently, we do need to complete the policy process that we’ve been going through for deregulation of universities, but we need to do it in a way that maintains the fairness for students, and I think the amendments we’re proposing will do that.
ANDREW GREENE: Belinda Robinson, thanks for your time.
BELINDA ROBINSON: Thank you.