SUBJECT: Higher education reform
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Christopher Pyne, thanks very much for being there. Can I get you to rate the week that was for the Coalition on a scale of one to 10?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, it's been a week that we might have played differently I think, if we'd had a second go at it. But at the end of the day the most important things the Government is doing, which is getting debt under control, reducing Labor's deficit, building the roads of the 21st Century, providing for those that need to be provided for by government – we're getting on with that job. In my own portfolio I'm obviously getting on with the higher education reforms, reviewing the curriculum, and teacher quality training at universities, and I think some of these issues have just been an unhelpful distraction. But I don't think that they are dealbreakers by any means for the Government's good work that we've been doing in the last 18 months.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: That said though, how does a government campaign over some pretty tough issues, some of which you mentioned there and win the public's trust, when the Prime Minister is being mocked? I mean, cartoonists now are basically painting him as a court jester.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Look, if would be preferable if all the media coverage was about the serious policy issues of the day. And I know that as a journalist and a commentator yourself, you always prefer to talk about serious policy issues, particularly in your column in The Australian and your program on Sunday mornings. But a lot of the press commentary in Canberra loves speculation about leadership, they love these kinds of distractions. But the bottom line is that the Australian public expect us to get on with the job they elected us to do, which is to fix the Australian economy and repair the budget, and provide for jobs and families, and that's exactly what we're going to do.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, you very strategically flattered me into moving into the policy debate. So let's do it straight away. Higher education – this is very much going to be at the centre of the Government's agenda, we've been told that by yourself as well as the Prime Minister. When Parliament returns, how confident are you that you can get the numbers in the Senate to get this package through? You know I think it should go through, that's what I've written. But it just looks like you're going to face the kind of opposition in the Senate that is just simply going to see it blocked.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Reform – microeconomic reform has to be able to be possible in Australia. Sure, there are people who are against this higher education reform. Some students are against it, but I point out they were against the Higher Education Contribution Scheme in the 1980s. They were against the administration charge. We’re not asking students to do anything more than pay 50/50 on average for the cost of their degrees, knowing that they get a significant private benefit. I'm not going to give a running commentary on the numbers in the Senate, but I would say to the crossbenchers: it has to be possible in Australia to achieve microeconomic reform when everyone in the sector – the vice-chancellors across the sector are supporting change. The status quo is not an option. And if at the end of this process, the status quo is what remains, nobody in the sector will think that that is a good outcome…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: The status quo, Mr Pyne…
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: [Indistinct]…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me jump in. The status quo is definitely not an option. I want to get to that in a bit more detail in a moment, but let me ask you this. Where are we at on the 20 per cent funding cut? Because that more than anything I think seems to be the sticking point. There’s been plenty of discussion on your side that you’re prepared to lower that. I suspect that you face your own internal difficulties with that with the ERC but that said where are we at on the ability to lower that to make it even harder for the crossbenchers to oppose this package?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well Peter there’s been speculation about reducing the reduction of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme from 20 per cent. There’s been speculation about it. I haven’t said that publicly and in fact I’m not responsible for the stories that were in The Australian a couple of weeks ago or less than a couple of weeks ago. But we’ll obviously talk to the crossbenchers about what they think is necessary to maintain the core reform which is the deregulation of the universities so that we can spread equity to more students, get more students going to university, get higher quality research being done and high quality teaching.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well let me put it another way then if I can because to get that kind of high quality being done, they would argue that that funding cut is a problem. I would argue it probably is too but equally you have deregulated the system to free up the universities to provide for their own funding. Have you had any indication from them – I’m talking about the crossbenchers here, the ones that at the moment seem to be opposing it; Ricky Muir, the Palmer United Party. Do you have any indication from them that they might be prepared to support it if there is room to move on that or is that just a sticking point despite that?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Look the crossbenchers know that Labor cut $6.6 billion from higher education between 2011 and 2013. They know that and therefore they recognise that we have to get more revenue to universities if they’re going to be able to compete internationally and that their students who come out of universities are going to have high quality degrees. They obviously I think would rather have no cut to universities at all but they also know that the taxpayers are not simply milch cows for the universities. There’s only so much the taxpayers can bear. They’re already squeezed right now and we can’t afford to raise taxes to give more money to universities. So as the students are the biggest beneficiaries from going to university, they get a 75 per cent increase on average in their income over a lifetime, the students are going to be asked to contribute more. I think that’s perfectly fair and I think most Australians think that is fair.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you can’t seriously hold the line on the 20 per cent funding cut can you? My understanding is that you didn’t want that but the ERC insisted on it. As the responsible minister that wasn’t a dealbreaker for you but you were forced into it by the various Treasury people.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well a dealbreaker for me Peter is the watering down of deregulation. Deregulation of the sector is the vital core element. Now what we negotiate with the crossbenchers will be something that we’ll reveal when we’ve discussed it with the crossbenchers and we’ve hopefully secured their support. But I’m not – as much as I’d love to give your show a scoop over everyone else, I think it’s probably best to wait ‘til we are in a position to announce something much more concrete.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: All right. What about looking forward if you don’t succeed with the complete caveat obviously that you hope that you do but everyone knows that you want to always have a plan B. What is the plan B for the university sector if it is both uncapped and not deregulated? It is, as I’ve written before, half pregnant in that situation, it’s untenable. What does plan B possibly entail?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I have inexhaustible well springs of energy for this battle, but the point you make is a good one. I mean Labor is being absolutely vandalistic, they’re being political opportunists about this. They know that reform is necessary but they’re not going to support it and they should hang their heads in shame. The crossbenchers know that the status quo is not an option and that’s why I believe we will come to a landing on reform. If the Bill doesn’t go through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme will end. There is no funding for it except in this package. That’s 1500 people who could potentially lose their jobs. I don’t think the crossbenchers want to be responsible for that. The Future Fellowships programme won’t be funded. So mid-year, mid-career researchers in the future will struggle to get the resources that they need to stay in Australia. The crossbenchers will need to consider that. We won’t be able to expand the demand driven system to the kinds of pathway programmes that low SES students use to get into university. That’s where it’s an equity issue. So it’s not a zero-sum game. The status quo will actually mean that people will potentially lose their jobs, less students will get the opportunity to go to university, there’ll be less money flowing to universities because obviously you won’t increase the funding because there isn’t the money to do that so the crossbenchers need to take those things into account.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you think Australia has a world-class university system now or do you think that deregulation would turn it into a world-class university system? And what I’m interested in here is that when you look at the rankings I suppose right around the world we don’t have universities in that real top 50, maybe one occasionally but that’s about it. But equally we don’t have the tail of deregulated countries like the United States even our sort of 32nd and 33rd best university in this country are nowhere near as bad at the tail of Australia as a multitude of tail universities in a deregulated country like the United States. What’s your view?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We have a world-class university system and that’s why international education is our third largest export after iron ore and coal. We wouldn’t have $15 billion of exports coming into Australia through international education if people didn’t think they were getting a good education. But let me put it this way. Five years ago there were no Chinese universities in the top 200 in the world. None. Today there are six. The competition from Asia is going to be very – it is intense and it’s going to get more intense. If we don’t free up our universities that international education market will be at risk, that means jobs will be at risk. The international student revenue is what pays for Australian students to be subsidised going to university. So this is a high stakes game and that’s why the crossbenchers need to consider very carefully what they decide to do and of course the Labor Party, as John Dawkins suggests, needs to come back to the negotiating table and take this seriously rather than allowing a left-wing relic like Kim Carr to run their policy agenda in a very important area of government policy.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Does the Prime Minister have to do something about his tin-ear?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that question’s something of a bolt out of the blue from the other questions Peter but that’s fair enough. I think the Prime Minister has a very good political antennae. I think he knows that the Australia Day announcement of a knighthood for Prince Philip has not gone as well as he had expected and he’s already indicated that there’ll be more consultation around appointments into the future. I would add, of course, I’m a republican as – I don’t know if you are Peter but I’m a republican and I therefore didn’t support knights and dames in the first place, but it was a captain’s call and he made that decision.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well that’s really where my question goes on this. This is just the last question, that’s why I deviated away from education. The captain’s call side of it. I was surprised when the Prime Minister at his press conference was being contrite about the decision and effectively admitting that it was a bit of a problem. But he didn’t simply adjust going forward the nature of the captain’s call around knights and dames. Don’t you think it would make more sense for the Order of Australia committee to select those four individuals each year rather than it be left at the whim of the Prime Minister, wouldn’t that clean this whole mess up?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that is a suggestion and I’m sure…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What do you think of it, though?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well I think the Prime Minister made a decision to extend the Australian honours to knights and dames. I think that was a decision he made 12 months ago.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But do you think it should be his decision to then choose the knights and dames or just his decision to bring them back as a concept?
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well that is the current system. If he chooses to change it I’m sure that the Cabinet will get an opportunity to consider it. But I’m not going to jump the gun, so to speak.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: All right, fair enough. Christopher Pyne, Education Minister and Leader of the House, appreciate your time on the program. Thanks very much.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: It’s a pleasure, thank you.