This year’s budget has cracked down on university debt avoiders as promised, but avoided altogether the fraught topic of wider uni reform, relegating Education Minister Chris Pyne to the shadows.
Christopher Pyne’s already announced plan to exact HECS debt repayments from uni students living overseas (who currently pay nothing) will save the government a paltry $26 million in revenue over the next four years, Tuesday’s federal budget revealed.
“The Government will be requiring Australian graduates with HECS debt who are living overseas to make the HECS debt repayments they would make if they lived in Australia,” said Mr Pyne in a statement.
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These savings were swallowed up by new spending, such as a $28 million institute to “promote high quality teaching and learning” at Australian universities.
After his failed attempts at fee deregulation, the government seemed eager to ignore the university sector entirely, with the new institute a rare mention in budget papers and statements.
The government “remains committed to quality and equity in higher education”, said Mr Pyne in a statement, with little in the way of evidence.
In keeping with Treasurer Joe Hockey’s broader budget theme of jobs and small business, education spending has been directed at many young Australians who may never step inside a university.
Apprentices and the young unemployed were some of the big winners, detailed here.
In last year’s mid-year budget update (known as MYEFO), the government revealed that Pyne’s watered-down fee deregulation plan, which he pruned in response to a hostile Senate and public backlash, would now only save about $650 million, a far cry from the original estimate of $4.6 billion.
In the budget speech, Treasurer Joe Hockey mentioned higher education once, and then only in the context of exports.
“If we could lift our service exports like higher education, tourism, health care and financial services, to just half the level of our commodity exports, it would add $50 billion to our economy each and every year,” Mr Hockey told parliament.
Gone were the warnings of an out-of-control university sector and mounting education debts.
Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten.
Mr Pyne pledged repeatedly before the budget to persist with his reforms.
The reason, according to Labor and the unions, is not blind hope, but budget practicality.
To admit defeat would result in his forecast savings finally being deleted from official estimates, thus worsening the deficit.
Currently, they persist in the realm of “budget fantasy”, to borrow shadow education minister Senator Kim Carr’s words, being neither realised nor removed.
All this from an education minister whose biggest media play immediately prior to the budget was his insistence that a ‘climate consensus’ research centre headed by a global warming denier would find a home elsewhere, after the University of Western Australia backtracked.