Deregulation is back. The second Higher Education and Research Reform Bill has just passed through the House of Representatives and is now being read for a second time in the Senate. On the last occasion, the Senate voted down the bill by an extremely close margin of 33-31.
The second Bill was introduced a mere day after the first was thrown out. The Government has been working relentlessly in trying to secure crossbench supports via incorporating crucial amendments. Although Labor and the Greens continue their objection to a Bill that leads to “$100,000 degrees and a new student tax”, it needs the support of six more third-party senators for the Bill to be passed.
So what exactly has changed? For one, your student loan will remain indexed to the Consumer Price Index rather than the ten year Treasury bond rate. No need to worry if you want to take another gap year after graduation or do some volunteering – your student debt (although it may still be a lot higher than it currently is) will not grow over time (inflation adjusted).
Furthermore, there is an indexation pause on your debts if you are the primary carer of a child under five and earn a moderate income. You effectively get a discount on your debt if you have a child. There is also the assurance that your deregulated fee (and therefore debt) will not be higher than what full fee-paying students are paying. All of these measures could be seen as a welcome change to the Bill.
However, as those who oppose the Bill suggest, the overall thrust of the package remains the same. Fee deregulation is still going ahead, and student debt is still likely to increase. However, it has been argued that some a potential increase in fees would be outweighed by improved quality of education and that grants and scholarships will be introduced to help the disadvantaged students.
Importantly the Bill grants discretion to the Minister of Education, currently Christopher Pyne, as to the quantity of grants and scholarships awarded each year to the universities and students. This additional power afforded to the Minister would usurp legal guidelines and limitations for those grants. It is important to consider whether we would like to entrust this responsibility to Ministerial discretion that is otherwise unencumbered by legislative limitation or public scrutiny.
There are obvious pros and cons to the package, which may be observed from a close reading of the Bill, the Second reading speech, or the Bill Digest (shorter than your average class reading) available on the Parliament website.