Senate set to reject higher education bill for second time

THE Senate crossbench looks set to reject the Abbott Government's higher education reforms for a second time, despite major concessions for universities being mooted on Wednesday.

On Wednesday during talks with the crossbench in his bid to deregulate the fee system, Education Minister Christopher Pyne indicated the proposed 20% cuts in government funding to universities could be reversed.

While the government has quelled some university sector concerns about the cut, crossbench veteran Senator Nick Xenophon has laid another plan that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has backed.

The government's reforms were rejected by the Senate late last year, with Mr Pyne promising to bring the changes back for debate when parliament resumes in February and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said the changes are at the top of the government's agenda for 2015.

Sen Xenophon said he had not budged in his opposition to the deregulation, but said an independent review of the entire higher education system was needed, and the reforms should be shelved until the review was completed.

He said deregulating the fees charged to students could lead to Americanisation of the university sector; it was not put to the 2013 federal election, and amounted to a "radical shake-up" of the industry.

"The only way forward as I see it is to have this review ... let's look at this calmly before we go through a robust reform process," Sen Xenophon said.

He said the review should be "all-encompassing" and should have bipartisan support and a "robust terms of reference".

Mr Shorten told reporters he supported the idea of the review if it was to come about, but said he still rejected the reforms themselves.

Crucially, Palmer United Party Senate Leader Glenn Lazarus said the PUP would reject any deregulation outright, and it was time for the government to "get off their iPhones and listen to the people of Australia".

Universities Australia's deputy chief executive Anne-Marie Lawson said the sector had "long argued" for the 20% funding cut to be reversed if the fee market would be deregulated.

But she said "without any movement on the cut, it will be difficult to win the support of the university sector or the crossbench for the package".

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