On the 14th of September at 4pm, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressed the press announcing that he had informed the Prime Minister Tony Abbott that he would be challenging for leadership of the Liberal Party. By 10pm, the Liberal MPs had conducted the ballot, with Turnbull beating Abbott 54 votes to 44.
There were cries of celebration upon the announcement of Turnbull taking the leadership. After all, it is the first time Australia has a Prime Minister who supports gay marriage, a strong stance on climate change and the movement to a republic. These celebrations have been quickly quietened, after it was revealed that in order to claim the leadership, Turnbull made promises with the right wing of the party. This has meant that he will not allow a conscience vote on gay marriage, won’t push the Republic issue, and will leave the current climate change policy as it stands.
These have been big issues for him in the past, but in order to gain power he has left his morals at the door.
Discontent had been growing with Abbott all year, with an initial attempt to cause a spill in February, despite the party not actually having another MP ready to put their name forward. The Abbott government has been largely unpopular with students, with critical issues being their policies on education, gay marriage, climate change and refugees.
The most pressing issue for students currently is what will happen to the policy introduced to deregulate university fees. Up until now, this policy has created huge angst for students, but has so far gone nowhere.
Christopher ‘the Fixer’ Pyne, former Education Minister, first attempted to deregulate higher education in the radical 2014 budget. The legislation has been blocked by crossbenchers in the Senate twice. The policy remained unchanged in the 2015 budget. Although university deregulation has remained on the backburner since March, it’s likely that higher education reform will be a focus for the Turnbull government.
The new Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has commented that he “will be an Education Minister who seeks to build a consensus and work with education stakeholders from early learning and schools through to universities and the vocational training sector and make sure that through that we are developing policies as much as possible in a collaborative sense.
“The government has policies that remain policies until the cabinet determines otherwise, but it is my expectation that I’ll be listening very closely to the views of education stakeholders on the content of those policies, on the reforms that are most needed for the higher education sector and that will, of course, inform my approach to future cabinet discussions on the matter.
Turnbull has said that although he supports deregulation, the “political realities” of the Senate will force an updated policy.
“The government’s position is that reform of the higher education system to enable, really to promote excellence and greater diversity and choice in higher ed is very, very important.
Alongside this, university administrations are loudly calling for deregulation and an entire overhaul of how funding is distributed to individual universities.
The Group of Eight (universities which include the ANU) has pushed deregulation from the start. This week they went even further, calling for an entire revamp of the funding model for the sector. They want universities that are research focused to gain more government funding, at the expense of lower ranked institutions.
Vicki Thomson, CEO of the Group of Eight, said the change of Prime Minister did not change the need for a sustainable economic model for university funding. The Group of Eight has just released its submission to the Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements for Higher Education. This submission claims that under the current model of funding, they are unable to support high-quality research. The elite universities call for a complete upheaval of the way research is funded, with Thomson saying, ‘The Go8 is committed to pathways to higher quality but the taxpayer funding pipeline needs to be severed where that is not occurring. Taxpayer funding should be diverted to deliver the best bang for the buck in the national interest. The Go8 is not saying halt the research; it is saying halt the taxpayer funding of that research that cannot deliver demonstrable high quality.’
This hard line is going to going to divide the university sector with bigger, more successful institutions trying to survive at the expense of small ones.
It is likely that these funding recommendations from the Group of 8 will greatly influence the new policy on higher education.
In the middle, current and future students are caught out. There are very few student voices at the policy making level, and without strong campaigning, what students want will be ignored.
As yet the potential $100,000 universities fees haven’t eventuated, but that is only because the legislation has not yet passed through the Senate. These issues are still unresolved.