Editorial: Pyne has failed to consult on fee deregulation

Pyne’s failure to consult on higher education policy has left matters in the hands of Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence.

Since the rebel Senate fellows started calling for a meeting of Convocation, some USyd students have engaged in furious debate over what constitutes a ‘good’ mode of consultation. Although few trust the university management to note the concerns of students regarding the higher education reforms, there appears to at least be a consensus that more consultation is better than none.

Calls for Convocation – now dead in the water – would have resulted in an enormous meeting of alumni and staff with no determined time length or speaking list. It was an undeniably flawed model, and would have shut out current students while prioritising the voices of the disproportionately privileged USyd alumni. Although some championed Convocation, it led many on all sides of politics to question the efficacy of such a sprawling debate.

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence dismissed Convocation as anachronistic, and a compromise was met – there is now to be a town hall-style meeting, in which 25 people will be allowed to speak for two minutes each. The meeting will consist of however many registered students, staff and alumni can squeeze into the Great Hall, and the speaking list will be decided by the Senior Executive Group (a university body consisting of management staff and senior academics) and, in a recent development, the heads of student organisations such as the USU and SRC.

Registration to attend this meeting is currently open, and we encourage all students who are interested in the future of higher education to attend. However, like Convocation, this method of consultation has flaws of its own. Although the inclusion of current students and the role played by student leaders are both wins, the limitations of the meeting are all too manifest. 25 people speaking for two minutes each is sorely inadequate for assessing reforms that will affect not only the 50,000 students currently enrolled at USyd, but also countless students to come.

For those who decry the town hall meeting as just a tokenistic attempt to placate the masses, perhaps you could take solace in the fact that Spence shares your concern. Given the speaking list is pre-selected and short, one has to doubt its prospects for a genuine debate. Speaking to Honi editors last week, Spence had a brilliant moment of self-awareness saying, “The interesting question is whether it looks a bit North Korea.” He defended pre-selection as the best way to get a balanced range of views, but conceded it might not convey the “flavour of the views”.

A USyd spokesperson emphatically said that the Town Hall meeting is only one part of Spence’s consultation plan, already in action. The rest of his plan includes focus groups, a search event (a speed-dating like occasion which will try to “process” hundreds of students’ views in one day) and written online submissions. It remains to be seen when the University will implement these plans. It is also unknown why the University hasn’t gone to greater lengths to advertise these additional processes – something which may have assisted in combating its image as a non-consultative ivory tower.

However, the efforts of the university to canvass the opinions of students, staff and alumni is a mere distraction from the larger issue at hand: the Federal Government sets the direction of higher education, and, in reality, the most impenetrable ivory tower of all is the current Abbott cabinet. The Government’s introduction of such serious and far-reaching education reform with no attempt at a national debate is both an insult to the electorate and an indication of their sheer cowardice and arrogance.

The surprise mass deregulation announced in the 2014-15 Budget placed Spence in an awkward position – forced to take on the role of the Education Minister in collecting community views on federal education policy. Of course, this is no excuse for Spence to shy away from the debate, but it is an important factor in considering the ability of USyd to properly collect views on the matter. In June, Spence emailed the student body and said he would be in touch over the coming weeks regarding consultation. Other than the debate over the town hall meeting – largely prompted by the “rebel Senate fellows” – this information has not been forthcoming. Considering the impending passage of this legislation through the government – possibilities of Senate failure aside – the consultation process ought to have begun by now. But it also should have been started by Pyne, well before the Budget was released in May.

Proper consultation is not and has never been convenient – it must be prolonged, it must be time-consuming, and it must be hard. Most importantly, it must occur. Christopher Pyne has committed a great abuse of his position by shirking the responsibility to listen to the community on the future of higher education. It is unfortunate that this task now lies in the Vice-Chancellor’s hands.