So the last time we tuned into antics in Canberra, the government was trying to pass a fairly ambitious piece of legislation that would completely de-regulate tuition fees while (more or less) maintaining the HECS system, which means post-graduate contributions are always tied to income, and thus do not become too onerous. The government was also going to cut institutional grants by about 20%, but keep the “demand-driven” system in which government dollars follow students no matter how many students attend.
The problem with this, politically, is that the government does not control the Senate. With Labour and Green opposed to the coalition, the government needs to attract six of eight votes belonging to independents and minor parties to get anything done in the upper chamber. Late last year, four of those senators were making positive noises. Two others (including the delightful Jacqui Lambie – seriously, click that link, it’s totally worth it) were implacably opposed, while the final two in play – Dio Wang of the vaguely Ford-ist (minus the drugs) Palmer United Party, and Independent Nick Xenophon – were opposed, but perhaps open to passing a deal with amendments.
So the government switched into deal-making mode, right? Wrong. For reasons that defy rational explanation, the coalition opted for a snap December Senate vote on the package, as-was. Cue a two-vote loss. Frank Underwood would not have been amused. In Australian parlance: the coalition whips were clearly a few sheep short of a full paddock.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. In response, the lower house simply adopted the same bill again, and sent it back to the Senate – only this time the government was ready to deal. The 20% cut in government grants, those “necessary” savings that required the government to introduce de-regulation? Turns out they’re negotiable – de-regulation apparently now matters more than fiscal probity. The universities can hardly believe their luck: full freedom to increase fees, and no loss in government grant? I don’t know exactly what’s going through vice-chancellors’ heads right now, but I’m betting that the words “eating”, “too”, “having”, and “cake” are all in there somewhere.
Problem is the government isn’t negotiating with vice-chancellors, it’s negotiating with Wang and Xenophon. Wang has now said he is personally for de-regulation, but will abide by a caucus decision on the party line when voting (the question remains open as to how this would work, given that the only other Palmer senator is dead-set against the bill). Xenophon wants the whole matter of university funding tossed over to a big bipartisan commission, a position which manages to be both sensible and absurd. Sensible in that yes, changes of this magnitude are best done in bipartisan fashion, because otherwise institutions get policy whiplash if the opposition comes to power and undoes the change (a point I made back here). On the other hand, it’s absurd in that there have been quite a few inquiries and commissions into higher education in the last few years; there are few secrets about the current system’s strengths and weaknesses. Also, bipartisan commissions take two to tango, and there’s precious little sign the opposition Labour Party has any interest in handing the government a way out of this debacle (even if, as is whispered, some of them actually approve of the policy). Xenophon presumably knows this, which is why his position – in Canadian parlance – is classic ragging the puck.
The clock is ticking on this proposal. Universities need to know what to tell incoming students about their fees, so the question pretty much has to be solved by March. That means another vote in the next five weeks or so. Given the government’s ham-handedness in handling the file to date, odds are it’s not going to pass, though stranger things have happened. But given the vaulting ambitions of Australian universities, and the seemingly limited desire of Australian government to fund higher education (per-student government funding is 30-40% lower than in Canada), it’s hard to imagine this option not coming back in some form in 2016.