Today the obnoxious and juvenile Christopher Pyne has backed away from the threat to make science infrastructure funding contingent on support for the university deregulation bill. The science funding will be continued for 12 months, but it appears that cuts to that funding may be on the agenda. The total funding of $150 million for the 27 facilities employing 1700 people and supporting the work of some 35,000 scientists is small in the context of a budget of $414.8 billion. Any savings would be miniscule.
I believe that Pyne never seriously intended to cut the funds entirely. We have been told that within Cabinet Abbott, Hockey and Macfarlane had reservations about the linkage. Crossbenchers went ballistic. Senator Cory Bernadi was identified as one of the party who was upset. It’s a fair bet that he had plenty of mates.
Chief Scientist Ian Chubb told us on the box that science infrastructure workers were already actively making arrangements to find work elsewhere. The ethics of playing with people’s lives in this way is downright despicable. Moreover irreparable damage would already have been done to Australia’s reputation as a good place to do science.
Now the opportunity arises for Pyne to negotiate university deregulation with the crossbench, free of childish threats and blackmail. So far only Family First Senator Bob Day is on board and he has demanded that course fees charged students be capped at 70% of overseas student course fees.
The basic problem, according to Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis (on the 7.30 Report and the Fin Review), is that university education comes at a price that no-one wants to pay. University education funding is not high in the priorities of Australian voters or politicians. Funding for university teaching, already stripped to the bone by Swan and Gillard, was scheduled now to suffer a further cut of $1.9 billion.
Leaving aside free market ideology, Davis sees the deregulation of fees as the only way to prevent university teaching in Australia from becoming third rate. “Third rate” is not his language, but I think it’s a fair representation of what he said.
Now in a truly surprising second backflip, Pyne has found another $1.9 billion to continue the former rate of funding for the time being. That will tell you how arbitrary and hollow his complaint really was that he couldn’t find $150 million for scientific research infrastructure.
Count me confused, but I’m sure the cuts will reappear down the line, because it’s either that or higher taxes. Davis is right. University education comes at a price that no-one wants to pay.