BY Katina Curtis
The Abbott government has been told by one of its own senators to tweak higher education reforms to make sure a university education is still accessible for as many people as possible.
Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie chairs a parliamentary committee that wants the government to give regional universities more help and change its plans to hike interest rates on student debts.
The existing system provided access to those previously locked out of higher education, she told AAP. “We don't want to stop that increase in access.”
The Senate on Wednesday is scheduled to consider legislation for the overhaul of higher education which includes deregulating fees, cutting student funding, expanding commonwealth support to private providers and courses below bachelor level, and charging real interest on student debts.
Senator McKenzie's committee heard overwhelming evidence there were concerns about HELP interest rates.
It has recommended the government go back to the drawing board, saying there was merit in a hybrid model in which no real interest is charged until a graduate earns enough to start paying the debt back.
But Senator McKenzie says it's up to Education Minister Christopher Pyne to decide the best model.
She is convinced there is need for a structural adjustment package to help regional universities and those enrolling large numbers of disadvantaged students.
But any special deal should be short term only, while universities adjust their business model to a deregulated system.
Senator McKenzie rejected a Labor view the call for an adjustment package was an admission of failure.
“I think it's extending the conversation,” she said on Wednesday. “This is a real conversation, real reform and we have to get it right because it's going to underpin access and excellence in our system.”