Pyne's punishment most certainly does not fit crime

6 May 2015

The Australian, 6 May 2015

By Vicki Thomson

Whatever the budget does, the fundamental problems remain.

If ever there were to be a sequel to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, this looming federal budget for the university sector could prove to be it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it was a political crime the Senate twice voted down the critically needed university reform package, which included fee flexibility and without which universities will be forced into a steady decline of quality and choice for national and international students.

There may have been much erroneous hyperbole in Senate speeches about students suffering from deregulation.

There should have been far more talk about how much they will suffer from the failure to enact this reform.

Whatever this year's budget does, the fundamental problems remain: the funding system puts volume before quality and rewards uniformity, not innovation and difference.

Students - especially at the most research-intensive universities - have to pay for research, because the government won't.

Now the budget will most likely deliver the punishment for the Senate's crime - but it will be the sector and its students who will be punished.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne would probably say no punishment was intended, and from his point of view that would most likely be correct.

The problem is, however, that the sector's funding issues go beyond anything that this budget can fix.

Without significant reform and the introduction of fee flexibility, nothing in the budget can deliver anything but harm which equals punishment.

As a sector, what we have to look forward to next week is judging levels of harm.

Hardly an auspicious way forward for a sector that is Australia's third largest export industry, one that educates the nation's future generations of professionals and delivers the backbone of the country's research. The view of what lies ahead next week is daunting.

The government has no intention of backing away from its 20 per cent funding cuts.

The minister has made that abundantly clear.

There is much chatter about a rise in the HECS cap but, realistically, this would not deliver what the sector so badly needs: long-term sustainable funding.

For even a 15 per cent increase in the HECS cap to make any difference at all to the present funding situation, the government's 20 per cent funding cuts would have to be reduced to between 5 per cent and 6 per cent.

The budget, therefore, is not to be looked forward to. It is to be survived with much despair.

Whatever the immediate impact, the long-term picture will be worse as the sector continues in its efforts to hold an obsolete funding system together with string and Band-Aids. Meanwhile, meaningful reform goes back into the toohard basket.

Here the punishment most certainly does not fit the crime. It isn't even being delivered to those who deserve it.

Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight.

Source: The Australian