Australian students breathed a sigh of relief last week when Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham announced the government would shelve its controversial plan to deregulate university fees. The proposed measures would have given universities the power to set their own fees from 2016, potentially locking less affluent students out of tertiary education.
In a conference last Thursday, Senator Birmingham stated that "funding arrangements for 2016 will not be changed from currently legislated arrangements" and that the government would "consult further" on future reforms.
The now-ditched reform was a part of a wider package of higher education cuts introduced under the Abbott government and spearheaded by former education minister Christopher Pyne. While shelving fee deregulation now fits in neatly with the new Turnbull government's "consultative" image, it also reflects the political reality. Under the Abbott government, the university reform package was knocked back twice in the senate; for the bill to be passed, something had to change.
But back when deregulation was well and truly on the cards, things were looking bleak for young people seeking further education. You might remember the period around the announcement of funding cuts as that time when uni students started a "riot", or when Katie Noonan had to save Q and A from student protesters.
With that in mind, we wanted to see how students were feeling about this latest announcement, so we asked university papers and magazines around the country for their reactions. Surprisingly, they weren't off clinking beers – the mood around the country seemed more of cautious optimism.
Pelican – University of Western Australia student magazine
So what are your immediate reactions to the decision?
We are stoked! Apathy tends to rule the general student population, but in our conversations with students it's been clear that they're keen to see the back of this policy.
Do you trust deregulation won't be an issue that comes up again in the future?
No, definitely not. Going through back editions of Pelican it becomes very clear that the same issues crop up again and again. Education is always in crisis. Students can definitely claim this as a victory, but that doesn't mean we should stop being critical of our university executives and tertiary education policy.
Empire Times – Flinders University student magazine, South Australia
What does this announcement mean for uni students?
From the outside it looks like a win for students around the country. They've been fighting and protesting this legislation for a long time now, so any move against the original proposal is quite substantial. That being said, students should be cautiously optimistic as the change was more about getting the legislation through Senate. It wasn't to forget the policy altogether.
So it was more of a calculated move?
The new Prime Minister is trying to distance himself from the Abbott Government and its unpopularity. After what the PM said in his press conference as PM-elect—that his government (and cabinet) would be more consultative—this move was almost expected.
Who stands to lose now that deregulation is called off?
The universities themselves stand to lose if the legislation isn't passed, mainly due to their own federal funding being cut. At a time when the country is being constantly reminded about the budget's black hole, it seems no one can afford to fork out more money for anything.
Honi Soit – University Of Sydney student newspaper
Care to share your reactions to the announcement?
The best thing about the move is that it reflects, at the very least, a degree of recognition of the efforts of students nationally. While the promise of "greater consultation" in future may prove empty, our SRC, our Union, and student bodies across the country should be enormously proud of the way they have mobilised. They have staved off something awful.
Are you worried that this won't be the last you hear of deregulation?
While the announcement offers temporary relief, it's really a 12-month non-commitment. It offers little to high school leavers who still have no idea what's going to happen in the next few years, and a government with real principles would have the courage to dump the policy altogether. The so-called unsustainability of accessible education is confected. Australia's funding of universities as a percentage of GDP is the second worst of any OECD nation.
Who are the losers in this situation?
There are no losers here. University management may have a harder time in a regulated system, but it is well known that they are tyrannous lich kings who drink the blood of the young in their restless hunt for immortality. They are despots to whom sympathy is a poison. Everybody has a right to a quality tertiary education.
Farrago, Melbourne University student magazine
What do you make of the decision?
I think it was an unsurprising one. The government wasn't getting the support it needed and wanted to pass the reforms, either from the crossbench or from universities, students and the public. I think Malcolm Turnbull has definitely placed a large focus on consultation in his messaging, and delaying this and consulting more with universities and students would be in line with that messaging. I think there's a chance some members of the government weren't fully sold on the legislation, and would probably like to have a chance to review it.
Is this the last we'll see of fee deregulation proposals?
I think the government will delay, regroup and look to potentially give a rebadged and refreshed model, one that's more palatable to the public and has more enthusiastic support from universities.
So, I think it will come back in the future—to an extent. I don't think the Turnbull Government, or any future Liberal governments, will attempt to introduce exactly the same package. But I would not be surprised to see something of a more limited extent, such as a large raise to the fee cap or continuing efforts to introduce fee support with private colleges.
Woroni, ANU's student newspaper
What do you think about the decision?
It should be welcome news for students who upon graduation can already expect low employment prospects and high house prices. This sends the right signal to University students that the Government is aware of how unpopular these measures are and that it is willing to listen to student concerns on these matters, at least temporarily.
What do you think prompted this decision?
The main push for this change has come with the change of Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull has been quite vocal in his rhetoric on "innovation" and support for start-ups and this would seem inconsistent with cutting University funding and raising fees.
It's clever for the new Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, to start this term with a conciliatory approach of reviewing Pyne's reform program before committing himself to the unpopular reforms of his predecessor.
Many student groups have been campaigning on this issue since it became prominent, and students have shown a keen interest in our coverage of National Union of Students rallies and other campaign events. From our perspective this shows the pressure the Government was under from students to reconsider these measures.
Do you trust deregulation won't be an issue that crops up again in the future?
There's no question that the Government still has plans for reform in the university sector and that some of these measures will be raised again in future. It's highly unlikely that any member of the Government, including the Prime Minister, is now less committed to deregulation than they were under Tony Abbott's leadership.
Does anyone stand to lose now that deregulation won't go through?
We suspect that the guy who operates the giant 'Real Big Tony' puppet at rallies in Canberra is now out of a job.
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The magazines and papers interviewed can be found here:
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