ABC Insiders with Barrie Cassidy
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, up next, our guest this morning is the Education Minister and Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, who joins us from Adelaide. Minister, good morning, welcome.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good morning Barrie. You and I are basically twins this morning.
BARRIE CASSIDY: It looks that way doesn't it, we should talk about this. Okay. Given that there's an important vote this week, on Thursday, well probably Thursday, on the university deregulation, do you have a realistic chance of success here, or are you simply going through the motions?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, look, the higher education reforms Barrie are absolutely vital for universities, and for students. For the Australian economy, for our exports. They're far too important not to keep trying as hard as we possibly can. Obviously I talk to the cross benchers all the time. And I continue to do so. On Friday we had the startling news that Glenn Lazarus split from the Palmer United Party, that might present opportunities in terms of Dio Wang, who has both indicated in the past that he supported the reforms but was constrained about voting for them by Glenn Lazarus' opposition. So obviously we are working on that front. Labor of course is the only reason why the cross benchers are where the action is, because Labor's taken themselves out of the conversation by being political opportunist, except of course we now see that they represent an existential threat to universities because of Kim Carr's policy of putting caps back on, paying on outcomes and shutting out low socio-economic status students from university.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, let's look at the numbers. You need six of the eight cross-benchers. Now Jacqui Lambie is in hospital and will be voting against it. And I presume she will be paired. So really you need six out of...
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: …Yeah, I would have thought so.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So, six out of seven, that's not much margin for error there.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: No there's not much, but it's an important job. I mean, everything in politics is not supposed to be easy, and my call to the cross benchers is to embrace reform and recognise that there is no credible alternative to the Government strategy. Even the Vice Chancellors, 40 out of 41, have indicated that if this reform doesn't pass it will be a slow decline into stagnation and mediocrity. As a consequence our international education exports, which are our third biggest export after iron ore and coal will decline. The offering that students get at university will decline in terms of its quality. We need more resources going to universities in research and in good teaching, but the tax payers can only be squeezed so far. At the moment students are only paying about 48 per cent on average. We want them to pay about 50 per cent on average. It's not much to ask, especially given they have the most generous loan scheme in the world.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now if this goes down, it at least won't be seen as a backflip, you've given it your best shot, but nevertheless, it's not a good look is it for the Government to fail again at reform.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, I'm never embarrassed about putting forward a good reform policy and fighting for it Barrie. I think people would give me credit for the fact that I was- never left the battle field. I always fought right through to the end, and we will fight right through to the vote, which will probably be on Wednesday, for as long as it takes. Now what we do after that I'm not contemplating, because I'm contemplating victory on Wednesday, because it's too important not to win for students, and for universities and for Australia.
BARRIE CASSIDY: It's the bottom line here though that fee deregulation is only necessary because Governments no longer willing, or able perhaps, to adequately fund the sector.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, regardless of the revenue- it's a good question, because regardless of the revenue deregulation is still a good policy, because we have to introduce competitive principles into universities so that they start putting their resources in those courses which they do really well, and they want to do more of, and stop churning students through courses that they don't really want to be doing. We need differentiation in the sector. We need really really excellent courses in every university and we need some universities to be the best in the world and we need the best system in the world. At the moment we only have one university in the top 50 in the world, that's Melbourne Uni, but we should have a number of universities in the top 50 in the world and that's what we should be aspiring to do, not just trying to hold the ring, patch up here or there, look for extra revenue. We actually need to have a reform that frees our universities to be the best they can be.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright, as you go into the last minute bargaining stages then, what do you put on the table, for example, any talk at all about putting a cap on the fee increases?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well what I've said Barrie, is that everything is on the table, except the centre piece of the reform which is deregulation. Now if the Government gets deregulation, which is going to be good for universities and students, all the other matters are open to negotiation. There have been a number of suggestions, a suggestion from Bruce Chapman, for example, a former Labor adviser and the father of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, to reduce the Commonwealth Grants Scheme in a different way which advantages the universities from rural and regional Australia and the sub-urban universities over the G8 but also put some kind of inherent caps in the system so the fee rises can't be exponential. It's called a reasonable fees mechanism. We'll look at that, but none of the cross benchers yet have said that they will vote for it if we do that. Now if they come back to us and say that they will then we'll look at it, but at the moment the cross benchers seem to be against overall reform, in which case we'll stick with our current policy because we think it's the best policy for Australia.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So what you were just talking about there then is restricting the level of increase by reducing the subsidies to universities as they increase, right?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Yeah, it's a bit like the aged pension. The more private income you get, the less pension you get, to the point where you're getting virtually nothing from the Government because you've got private income. So the more universities increase their fees, the less Commonwealth gran- Commonwealth Government subsidy they would get as a consequence, it would become not in their best interest to increase fees above a certain level, and for example the Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven, said on Wednesday that they wouldn't increase their fees at all if that mechanism was introduced. So some universities would increase their fees, they'd get less Commonwealth grant subsidies, others wouldn't increase their fees at all, in which case they'd be opting-out if you like, of the cut.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, you've also said that if the legislation is defeated you will slash scientific research funding, that could mean in effect sacking 1700 scientists. Is that a threat that you're going to see through until the end.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Barrie there are consequences for not voting for this reform, and that's very important for the cross benchers to understand. The consequences are that potentially 1700 researchers will lose their jobs, because, while the Government spends nine billion dollars a year on research the 150 million dollar National Collaborative and Research Infrastructure Scheme was defunded by Labor, I want to refund it Barrie and I've had to find the savings. The savings are in the reform, therefore the savings and the spending are inextricably linked. You can't do one without the other.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You talk about consequences. Think about the political and the economic consequences of sacking 1700 scientists.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well tragically Barrie, in these days, because Labor left us in such a debt and deficit disaster, if a minister proposes a spending measure, they need to have a savings measure. That's how household budgets work. You can't spend more unless you can come up with ways of saving. Now ,we will save, through the reform, enough to be able to fund 80 000 more places by expanding the demand driven system to pathways programs and non-university higher education providers, and save the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme and the Future Fellows, grants that we make, but all of those things come with a cost, and the cost is the savings on the other side of the ledger. If the cross benchers vote against the savings, they can't expect the Government to come up with the spending.
BARRIE CASSIDY: It comes with a cost and a threat, and the Business Council of Australia, of all people, have said to you about that, you're prepared to jeopardise all of these highly skilled research jobs, shame on us.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, actually Barrie, I'm the one that's trying to save them. If Labor had been re-elected, this scheme would have come to an end. I am really passionate about research, and so is Tony Abbott, and that's why I've actually found the money to fund the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme. It is Labor that was defunding it, and the cross benchers and Labor if they vote against the reform bill this week, they will be responsible for ending it.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. You had a good Fairfax poll a week or so ago, but now a poor news poll since then. Can you hold your seat with Tony Abbott as leader.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, Barrie, I've held my seat eight times, I've held it through different leaders and different periods of the election cycle when Governments went into power and out of power. And I believe that I will hold my seat because the Government is doing the right things for Australia. Short term popularity has always been ephemeral, I've never sought it. What I've always sought in my electorate is to be seen as effective, and experienced and energetic. And I've been doing that for 22 years last Friday, and I intend to keep doing that into the future if the good burgers of Sturt continue to support me.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And is Malcolm Turnbull being helpful by going around the country and giving public speeches on how to run a good government?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Absolutely. Malcolm is doing exactly what every cabinet minister should be doing. When he was in Queensland I was in Queensland too. I was in the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday I was in Sydney sprucing the higher education reforms, the curriculum changes, the teacher training reforms that I'm behind, the independent public schools model that I'm supporting. I'm doing my job. Malcolm's doing his job. That's what cabinet ministers should be doing, and Malcolm's doing exactly what he should be doing.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Christopher Pyne, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Always a pleasure Barrie. Thank you.