Late on Tuesday December 2, the Abbott government’s plan to deregulate HECS-HELP fees was defeated 33 to 31 in the Senate. This blow to the government was built on the back of huge public outcry and protest.
But sticking with the Abbott government’s contempt for ordinary people, Pyne re-introduced the same policies into the Lower House the next day.
Plan B is the same as Plan A, except that it would not place a real interest rate on student debts. It aims to create a new ‘full-fee’ undergraduate market by deregulating HECS-HELP fees, ‘reinforced’ by 20% subsidy cuts, heavily reduced indexation of future subsidies and the extension of public subsidies to private providers.
This would radically undermine access and quality, and lay the basis for the future privatisation of public universities.
Many have rightly celebrated this defeat. Some have even declared the war on higher education over, suggesting that Plan B was only introduced to artificially ‘repair’ a $5 billion ‘gap’ left by Plan A’s defeat, prior to a budget update.
However, the defeat of Plan B and other cuts-legislation early next year is far from certain. Plan A was only defeated by the public pressure exerted on wavering senators: Palmer United Party crossbenchers Lazarus and Wang, ex-Palmer senator Lambie (all of whom previously flip-flopped to support the Coalition), the ALP (which cut billions from universities during government), and the Greens (who continue to vote for budgets that contain cuts).
Crossbenchers Day, Leyonhjelm, Madigan and Muir already voted for Plan A. Xenophon did not, but only because he was playing for time. Pyne meant it when he said as “far as I’m concerned, round one is over, round two begins tonight.”
The only way to guarantee the defeat of deregulation is to escalate the public campaign. The Coalition understand this and are already wasting millions in public money on an advertising counter-campaign.
The National Union of Students (NUS) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) will need to organise more protests and prepare for a one day nation-wide strike in the new year. If Plan B is passed, this will best prepare students and the community for a campaign of mass action and non-compliance to stop its implementation.
By W. van Leeuwen