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OUR SAY: Christopher Pyne fails over higher education reform

THE rejection of the Coalition’s higher education bill by the Senate on Tuesday night should now prompt all parties to use the Christmas recess to do their homework in an area of public policy Australia cannot afford to get wrong.
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A centrepiece of the shambolic Hockey budget, the deregulation of tertiary education, which was to include raising fees, raising the cost of student loans and cutting funding to universities, is not just a matter for federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne to revisit.

The Opposition and the universities need to reconsider the current state of higher education and what students and institutions need for a viable education sector in the future.

Mr Pyne needs to drop the Churchillian bluster and talk sensibly with the Opposition, cross bench MPs and, above all, the public about what needs to be done. His second crack at the legislation, tabled yesterday, is a big improvement on the regressive and punitive policy the Senate tore up, but it is not there yet.

Sticking with the existing student loan scheme is a good start, as is a funding package to help universities transition to the competitive model he says is inevitable. But is it?

Faced with a huge cut in funding, most university vice-chancellors have supported the transition to a US style model if more help is offered.

They are petrified their funds will dry up, followed quickly by their research programs and then their academic standards and international standing.

That would certainly be the case if federal funding was cut by the intended 20 per cent and nothing replaced it.

If Labor wants to preserve a regulated system where fees are controlled and more Australian students are enroled it needs to present a viable alternative. Many universities, including vocationally focused regional institutions like Charles Sturt University, might take a different view of Mr Pyne’s model if they were presented with a real choice.

University students and their families dodged a bullet on Tuesday night. They expect the universities and their elected representatives to be far better prepared when parliament resumes in 2015.

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