But while they differ in style, Birmingham and Pyne are identical in two very important ways: they both want to deregulate higher education fees, and they both got their start in politics by campaigning against the exact sort of fees they’re trying to bring in now that they’re in government.
First, some background. One of the defining failures of the Abbott government was Pyne’s ill-fated plan to deregulate the university sector, potentially blowing out the cost of degrees to unheard-of levels. Vociferously opposed by student bodies, crossbench Senators, teachers’ unions and the wider public, Pyne spent a good two years trying everything he could think of to get fee deregulation up before the policy was shelved in October by Birmingham, his Turnbull-era successor.
Now with an election coming up, Birmingham’s firmly placed fee deregulation back on the government’s agenda. In an interview with 7.30‘s Leigh Sales last night, Birmingham reiterated his intention to try and push fee deregulation through where Pyne had failed. The plan to let unis set their own course fees is just as bad an idea now as it was two years ago; earlier this week the Parliamentary Budget Office said that fee deregulation was a major factor in their prediction that student debt levels will skyrocket from $1.7 billion now to around $11 billion in 2025/26.
And just as it did last time, the prospect of being saddled with up to $100,000 in debt has brought angry students out of the woodwork. Birmingham’s appearance at a Young Liberal debate in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library on Wednesday night was interrupted by student protesters, who clashed with police and campus security in an attempt to gatecrash Birmingham’s party.
Which brings us back to Pyne and Birmingham’s student days at the University of Adelaide. In September 2014, some enterprising sleuth unearthed an old edition of Adelaide student newspaper On Dit, in which a young Pyne — then running for a position with the uni’s Students’ Association — described his desire to “do everything possible to forestall the introduction of fees and, indeed, to end any movement by the Federal Government to introduce fees”.
Which was rather awkward for Pyne, given that introducing fees is exactly what he was trying to do as Education Minister.
Now the same thing has happened to his successor. Dug up by Australian Young Labor earlier today, a similar student paper CV shows a young Birmingham with a very different set of priorities to the ones he has now. Then in his second year of an economics degree, Birmingham — also running for student office — pledged he would “stand up to the Federal Government’s assault on students and education,” and “fight the introduction of Up-Front Fees”.
So the last two federal Education Ministers have started out as defenders of students’ rights, only to change their tune once they get into positions of power. That’s comforting.
Pyne and Birmingham aren’t even the worst offenders in this admittedly niche category. In May 2014, footage emerged of a young firebrand named Joe Hockey campaigning to defend free education in 1987. If Liberal frontbenchers have an origin story, we really need to work out the part where they cash in their ideals in exchange for career advancement.
As for fee deregulation, Birmingham’s pledged not to bring it on until after the election, so if the thought of paying off your HECS debt until you’re 45 doesn’t appeal, bear that in mind