After their divisive and craven campaign for greater fees, Universities Australia’s days are numbered

It’s been a tumultuous week in Australian higher education.

With the chaotic mismanagement that has become the hallmark of the Abbott government, education minister Christopher Pyne’s hugely controversial university reforms were voted down by the Senate. Even some aggressive text messaging couldn’t do the trick.

Pyne wasted no time, immediately reintroducing the reform package to the lower house. Australian universities, academics and students face further uncertainty.

If the failure of the bill is a defeat for the Abbott government, it is also a humiliating blow to Australia’s top universities, and the lobby group that nominally represents them, Universities Australia (UA).

Aided by a small group of university bosses UA was almost the sole public proponent of the university changes. Nearly everyone else in the sector opposed them: academics, general staff, unions, students and many policy experts – not to mention the general public, which, according to the latest Essential poll, opposes both fee deregulation and cuts to public funding by a whopping margin.

It was this public pressure that eventually told. Minor party senators voted down the changes because they were unpopular. As Palmer United senator Glenn Lazarus wrote, “I consulted with universities and student union groups in Queensland and spoke with stakeholders across Australia and the feedback was unanimous – Australians don’t want to pay more for higher education.”

UA is a peculiar beast: a taxpayer-funded peak body that claims to speak for Australian universities “in the public interest”. But the bitter battle over Pyne’s legislation has exposed the insincerity of those claims. UA clearly no longer speaks for all Australia universities. Nor does it advocate in the public interest.

We know this largely because of the extraordinary intervention of one man: Stephen Parker, the vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra. In an incendiary and widely-reported speech this week, Parker mocked Group of 8 bosses as former CEOs and neoliberal economists (hello, Fred Hilmer). He compared Universities Australia itself to a flesh-eating bacteria.

Most importantly of all, Parker made the obvious but largely ignored point: these changes are bad for students.

“These reforms are unfair to students,” he said. “They have to lead to significant increases in student debt; because this is part of the Government’s case for them.”

“Australian students already pay a higher proportion of their tuition than those in most OECD countries. This will blight the lives of a generation, unless Australia comes to its senses.”

At a stroke, Parker made obvious what the university lobby has constantly tried to conceal: while deregulation helps elite universities, it is very bad news indeed for future students. He also tore down the veneer of unity that UA and the Group of 8 have tried to maintain.

Everyone agrees that universities need more money. If these reforms were genuinely about increasing funding for the sector and freeing up universities to do their job better, they might have attracted public support. But they’re not. If universities need more money, why is the government seeking to cut a whopping 20% from public funding for each and every student? If this is really about equity, why did the government want to raise the rate of interest on university loans?

Instead of advocating for better education policy, Universities Australia has instead caved in to Pyne’s demands for reform.

The low point may well have been during a Senate inquiry earlier this year, when UA chief executive Belinda Robinson told a committee that the lobby group had given up on campaigning for more public funding, and was therefore rolling over on fee deregulation.

“The sector has looked carefully and closely at the government’s proposals, and come to the consensus view that fee deregulation is the next logical step in higher education policy, and should not be opposed,” Robinson said on October 9.

To say the opposition and cross-bench senators listening were shocked is something of an understatement. Labor’s Kim Carr was flabbergasted.

“I support increasing investment in universities,” he responded. “Why don’t you?”

Not content with public support, UA recently commissioned a week of national advertising, calling on minor party senators to pass the bill.

UA’s backflip was manna from heaven for Pyne. He trumpeted the lobby group’s support for the reforms, telling all and sundry that universities wanted these changes.

In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. While a ginger group of right-wing vice-chancellors, largely from the sandstone universities, continued to agitate for deregulation, behind the scenes there was wide dissent. Smaller and regional universities will be hammered by the reforms: why then is the peak lobby group campaigning for them?

Perhaps the very idea of university-wide lobby group is a bad idea. It’s not very representative, for a start. Why, for instance, are no students on the board of Universities Australia? Why are there no staff or union representatives?

UA boss Belinda Robinson is a former fossil fuel lobbyist, for six years the head of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. At UA, this background has told. She has consistently treated universities as though they are large corporations, whose responsibility is to make profits for shareholders.

But universities are not corporations, even if the people that run them get paid like merchant bankers. Universities are taxpayer-funded public institutions that exist to deliver a social good. Their responsibilities extend beyond teaching and research, to cultural, intellectual and moral spheres.

These public goods can’t be captured in the impoverished language of flexibility and competition. If Belinda Robinson can’t articulate that basic truth, then our universities need a new lobbyist. Indeed, perhaps we need an entirely new lobby.

We might get one anyway. The performance of Universities Australia has been so divisive that its days as a peak body seem numbered. Parker is right: UA doesn’t speak for all 39 universities, let alone the academics and students who teach and study in them. The lobby group’s craven campaign against the interests of students and the public as a whole has been exposed.

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