Government to unveil higher education legislation

Universities appear no closer to relieving the uncertainty surrounding the government's planned deregulation agenda for the higher education sector as a Senate majority proves elusive.

The Abbott government will unveil its higher education legislation package on Thursday, but its immediate future is in doubt because it is steadfastly opposed by Labor and the Greens and by all but two of the eight crossbench senators.

With independent senator Nick Xenophon and Victorian Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan unconvinced, the government is hopeful of swaying an as yet unsupportive Palmer United Party bloc of four votes.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne is set to unveil the government's higher education package this week. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Education Minister Christopher Pyne is set to unveil the government's higher education package this week. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

University representatives have been lobbying MPs and leaning on Education Minister Christopher Pyne to keep desired aspects, such as the deregulation side of the package, while ameliorating other aspects such as more expensive student loans, and harsh funding cuts.

The peak body Universities Australia has been leading the negotiations on behalf of the university sector.

The legislative package is expected to reflect all the major proposals announced in the May budget.

These include:

  •  a full deregulation of fees
  •  an average funding cut of 20 per cent for university courses
  •  student loans pegged to the government bond rate, rather than inflation
  • the extension of Commonwealth subsidies to students at TAFEs, private colleges and diploma courses.

The government is prepared to make major changes - including on the increased HECS interest rate - but only as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Senate frontbenchers.

The legislation presented on Thursday will reveal crucial details nutted out in a government-appointed working group led by Latrobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar. These include how much funding teaching-only colleges would receive compared to public universities and the amount of government support for different university disciplines. In the May budget the government condensed the eight existing funding "clusters" into five – a decision that hit some disciplines, such as environmental science, hard while benefiting others such as mathematics.

University vice-chancellors anticipate that students at private colleges will be funded at around 70 per cent of the level of students at universities. It is also understood the Dewar group has recommended returning to the pre-existing funding cluster system. If adopted, this would anger universities with large numbers of teaching and nursing students, given they were not as badly affected by funding cuts as other disciplines under the government's proposed regime.

On Wednesday university vice-chancellors from the Group of Eight universities - the most vocal supporters of fee deregulation - held a breakfast for politicians from all parties, where they made their case for reform.

Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis rejected claims in a report carried by Fairfax Media on Wednesday, that the deregulation would allow the top-end universities to dramatically increase fees for high-demand courses reaping massive windfall gains in overall funding.

He described those claims as ludicrous because they were based on modelling of "extreme scenarios" aimed at defining the outer limits of possibilities.

But Professor Davis said it was impossible to outline the precise impact of lower federal funding combined with fee deregulation beyond the certainty that a 20 per cent cut would leave universities out of pocket and require some restructuring.

"If the government puts through the cuts of 20 per cent to teaching that it's proposing, of course, cuts that we oppose, fees will rise on average by about 30 per cent ... all that will do is cover the loss of Commonwealth money," he said.

He said it was difficult to predict because of the complexities of the funding system, the structure of universities, the mix of courses, and the different costs of providing some courses.

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