PolitiFact fact checks Christopher Pyne on so-called “student unionism” and his review of the demand driven system and rates his post election comments a “half flip” on his pre-election commitments.
There are some things that are just never settled in the education wars.
Compulsory student unionism is one of them. It was abolished in 2006 by John Howard’s Coalition government, and then returned “by the back door” (in the words of Christopher Pyne) when Labor introduced as the Student Services and Amenities Fee in 2011. Now the Coalition is planning to abolish that.
As a quick digression, it’s worth noting that the SSAF isn’t compulsory student unionism at all. It’s a fee ($273 in 2013) that universities are allowed to charge if they want, payable to the university. It must go toward funding student services and amenities, including sports, recreation and entertainment programs as well as counselling and academic assistance.
Many universities pass on large chunks of the SSAF pool to the student union, but a lot of the money ends up with other bodies – for example, see the 2013 breakdown of the SSAF distribution at the University of Sydney (USU denotes the student union):
Pyne has now signalled a wide ranging review of the higher education system which, in addition to abolishing the SSAF, would canvass international students, red tape and the “demand-driven system”.
This term denotes the system introduced when Labor abolished a cap on the number Commonwealth-supported places at universities. The government makes a substantial financial contribution to these places and now does so for as many students as the universities will enrol.
In 2011-12, student enrolments rose by four per cent, but there was a bigger increase for low-income, Indigenous and disabled students, and those from a non-English speaking background. The previous government said it was good to see a higher number of disadvantaged students going to university, and this was the result of scrapping the cap.
But the policy has its critics, including the more prestigious Group of Eight universities such as Sydney and Melbourne, who say it lowers standards.
And now Pyne is accused of joining them, despite previously ruling out a return to the cap. But does that stack up?
On August 26, 2012, the Coalition issued a press release stating the following:
The Coalition has no plans to increase university fees or cap places, said the [then] Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne today.
“Reports that this is being considered are wrong. In fact the Coalition strongly supported the uncapping of university places and many other elements of the Bradley Review,” Mr Pyne said.
The term “no plans” is a classic deployment of the sort of weasel words politicians live by. Granted, the plans of an opposition can and do change in government in response to circumstances. But often this is used to avoid revealing those intentions before an election. Terms like “no plans” provide a safe cover that’s technically not falsifiable.
Although, in this case the headline of the press release makes it a little more emphatic than perhaps the Coalition intended. “Coalition will not cap places or raise HECS,” it reads.
Pyne repeated the line about having “no plans to restore the cap” in a report appearing on the ABC’s 730 program on July 17, 2013. He added: “We do need to address concerns in the industry that there is a diminution of quality.”
But here’s the clincher. Page 41 of the Liberal Party’s “Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians” handbook, under the heading “Strengthening higher education”, lists the policy: “We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.”
This is the policy booklet which Tony Abbott launched in January, telling Australians it “explains the direction, values and policy priorities of the next Coalition Government”.
Fast forward to today. A report in the Australian newspaper quotes Pyne saying that an increase to HECS is “not even being considered”, but that the cap is on the table. There will be a review into the demand-drive system.
“Some people in the higher education sector believe we’re already at saturation point with the number of people that can and want to go to university,” Pyne said today. “I need to get good advice about all of that.”
And he told ABC radio in Adelaide today: “There is certainly a lot of evidence that the number of students being enrolled has grown exponentially and whether they have grown in the courses that have a career path is one of the things that we need to carefully consider.
“It would be wrong of the universities and the Commonwealth Government to simply be training people for careers that don’t exist.”
Calls were made to Pyne’s office today but have so far not been returned.
The Coalition hasn’t announced an intention to reinstate the cap, just that it will be considered as part of a broad review into higher education.
Previously Christopher Pyne has said there were “no plans” to restore the cap. He also said reports that the idea was being considered were false.
Clearly it is now being considered. That stands in contrast to the policy in the Liberal Party’s policy handbook, which states they will leave the current funding arrangements in place.
We shouldn’t jump the gun – a policy has not been announced and we don’t know what will happen. But the sentiment and the messaging has changed. Something that was once off the table is now on it.
We rate this a Half Flip.