Christopher Pyne is out to break one of the longest spells of ineffectiveness that any Australian political party has ever had in a key policy area.
When Federal Parliament resumes sitting next week he will attempt to pass his higher education reforms through the Senate.
If he succeeds, the Abbott government will be the first coalition administration since Menzies to make substantial and visionary reforms to higher education.
During the 17 years of his prime ministership, Robert Menzies overhauled Australia's universities, dramatically expanding the number of institutions, and the number of students, in higher education.
So much so that Gough Whitlam held Menzies' achievements in very high regard and said so.
In a speech to the Harvard Club of Australia in June 1973, as he was about to launch his own reform program which made higher education free, Whitlam offered his predecessor this encomium.
“No Australian has done more to serve the cause of university education in this country than Sir Robert Menzies,” he said “Under the responsibilities accepted by his government, more young Australians were given access to universities, and more money was spent to equip the universities for their augmented populations than was known or contemplated in the 100 years since the first university in Australia was granted its charter.
That's what Gough thought. The problem for the Coalition parties is they have not managed to make any defining or visionary changes to higher education since.
Malcolm Fraser retained Whitlam's free system. John Howard tried to bring in a deregulated market-driven system but he backed away after a cabinet leak and Labor Party attacks.
In the meantime, Whitlam had made university education free. Then confronted by budget stringencies and the fact free education did not boost' participation for students from poor families, Bob Hawke's government introduced the key reform of the last half century: reimposing fees and introducing the HECS income-contingent loan scheme.
Later Julia Gillard, as Kevin Rudd's education minister, ended the long-standing quota restrictions on bachelor degree students, allowing universities to take as many enrolments as they deemed were qualified for the course, and that drove another expansion in student numbers.
So too can Pyne break the drought and become the first Coalition higher education minister to put runs on the board since the Menzies government. The driving force behind Pyne's reforms is boosting competition in the higher education sector, not only between universities, but also allowing private providers to be more competitive.
It is also about student choice, designing a market-based system that will offer a greater variety of courses at a range of prices to suit different students' needs.
He wants to open up the HECS system to all higher education providers that offer bachelor degrees, including private colleges.
And he is making a key move to bring more poor and otherwise disadvantaged students into higher education.
He's offering HECS loan support and also government subsidies, for associate degrees which raise students to the standard where they can enrol, and successfully complete, a bachelor degree.
He is also proposing a new scholarship scheme in which each university is required to spend one-fifth of any extra revenue it gains from fee rises on student assistance.
But Pyne also wants to minimise governments' financial responsibility for higher education, planning to cut the course subsidy for bachelor degrees by an average of 20 per cent. And, with numbers of students using HECS loans set to expand, he is limiting the cost to government by proposing to, for the first time, put a real interest rate on HECS loans.
It's a complex package, which has many other components, but the core philosophy is to bring more competition to higher education and pass more of the cost onto students within the safety net provided by the HECS loan system.
Pyne has done a skilful job of persuasion with universities, which nearly all back his reforms, provided he agrees to ease the increase in HECS interest rates, reduces the 20 per cent cut to course subsidies, and establishes an adjustment fund to help financially weaker universities switch to the new system.
Can the package pass? Even though we have had six months of debate since the package was announced in the May budget, we still don't know. Labor, whose efforts built the higher education system we have now, has refused to engage on the reforms.
Notwithstanding that Pyne is not tearing down Labor's structure but is, instead, building on it, Labor says it will not accept any changes. Likewise the Greens, who continue to support Whitlam's flawed vision of free higher education, refuse to negotiate.
So Pyne's hoped-for legacy as a higher education reformer rests with the assortment of independents and Palmer United Party senators who hold the balance of power. Even though Pyne has signalled many times he will compromise to get his reforms through, his chances of passing it are in the balance.
He probably has support from NSW Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and Family First's Bob Day. Some observers think Pyne can win over Victoria's John Madigan and SA's Nick Xenophon.
But he needs support from six senators.
And so far the Palmer United Party, with three senators, is solidly against the package, and there are no signs that Ricky Muir from the Motor Enthusiasts Party will vote for it, Pyne will tell The Australian Financial Review's Higher Education Reform Summit, which starts in Melbourne on Wednesday, that Labor's decision to oppose the package outright has handed the Senate crossbenchers an opportunity to make a difference.
“I am open to negotiation and they know that. I want an outcome that is good for students and good for universities,” he will say.
Pyne will make the case that Australia's education system has evolved in a constructive way. “We can continue to evolve. I urge the Senate not to ignore the needs of students and the needs of the nation. Do not ignore the cries of Australia's higher education leaders. Do not stand in the way.”
“I am open to negotiation and they know that I want an outcome that is good for students and good for universities.”