BILLS, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, Second Reading

Ms BIRD: (Cunningham) (11:28): I rise to speak to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, which seeks to change the operation of TEQSA, Australia's national higher education regulator. I move:

That all the words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that the:

(1) Government has failed to offer an adequate response to the Review of Higher Education Regulation;

(2) bill does not adequately demonstrate how the international reputation of the tertiary education sector will be protected; and

(3) Government has failed to provide appropriate time for consultation and consideration of the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Broadbent ): Is there a seconder to the amendment?

Ms Kate Ellis: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Ms BIRD: Australia needs TEQSA. We need a genuine national regulator for our higher education sector. We need to preserve our international reputation as a higher education provider and we need to provide reassurance for all students. This is especially so since the government has indicated that it wishes to deregulate and expand private provision.

We need a regulator who is independent yet accountable. The public has a right to be assured that public moneys are well spent on universities, including through appropriate probity guarantees. Genuine quality assurance by universities, particularly given that they are self-accrediting institutions, needs to be verified through a regulator.

We recognise that there are different approaches in research and in teaching, just as we recognise the importance of institutional autonomy. It is important that we have a clear quality assurance framework in place that allows us to work in partnership with the higher education sector. The TEQSA Act should be part of that framework, but it is not in itself the answer.

I will firstly put the establishment and operation of TEQSA in its historical context. The last time those opposite were in office, a number of new entrants sought to operate in the higher education sector in Australia. The coalition sought to expand the sector but gave too little thought to protecting quality. Unsurprisingly, unscrupulous operators sought to make money without any concern or care for providing genuine, high-quality education. What followed were a series of scandals which were quite damaging to the sector. One example is the case of Greenwich University, which operated on Norfolk Island and marketed itself as an Australian university. Another was St Clements University which, it was later discovered, was run out of the same premises as a whisky wholesaler.

There were clearly real and emerging problems in the sector. Operators were misusing the names of reputable international institutions to establish degree factories and exploit immigration loopholes. Such institutions damaged the reputation of our sector as a whole. When Labor formed government, we determined that this was not only unacceptable but that strong action had to be taken. As a result, we established the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority to provide a robust regulatory framework.

When, after a period of operation, concerns of administrative overreach were raised, we responded by appointing two very capable and respected professors, Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite, to conduct a review of higher education regulation. When we were provided with the review last year, we welcomed it immediately. It was a considered and comprehensive piece of work. It reflected broad consultation and a deep understanding of the sector and the forces at play in the regulation of the sector. The report recommended changes to administrative practice and legislative interpretation. Some of those recommended changes are reflected in this bill. The emphasis, however, was on a change in culture. Quality had to be understood as a mutual goal—partnership was the key. This was the defining principle of the university compacts process Labor introduced and the review recognised it as the key to success. The review emphasised—indeed it emphasised it again and again throughout the report—the importance of building relationships in the sector. It emphasised the importance of data sharing and the importance of reducing duplication and aligning work, especially between TEQSA and ASQA.

These are just some of the areas where the government has fallen short with this bill. Two key questions remain: does the current bill genuinely respond to the findings of the review of higher education regulation and, just as importantly, how do we ensure the accountability of the new agency? There are red flags here from the start. This bill was rushed into parliament without any consultation with the reviewers, universities, other providers or students. As far as we can tell, the bill has been given very little consideration. It was also presented without an exposure draft and without any sensible policy responses to the review. It stands in isolation.

This very concern was raised in the review. It said:

It is easy to recommend apparently straightforward amendments to legislation which appear agreed by everyone. But this is worryingly simplistic, patching individual pieces of legislation can fix functional irritations, but will not necessarily change the way in which the legislation is being applied and why.

It is a shame that in response to such a considered piece of work, we have what appears to be a hasty piece of work, an impression heightened by the fact that the minister apparently did not foresee it just one month ago. Why do I say that? Just one month ago, the minister appointed a new commissioner to TEQSA.

I acknowledge that the minister gave directions to the chief commissioner late last year, but again these do not form a full policy response. Information passed between the commissioner and the minister does not form a public policy position that is open to scrutiny and to the input of the sector. Without time to consider, without consultation and without knowing what other actions are proposed in relation to this issue, it is very difficult to know the full ramifications of the changes proposed in this bill. For example, the review recommended that the government put in place a mechanism for TEQSA to consult with the sector and suggested an advisory committee. But where is that proposed advisory committee? The review also strongly recommended the government work to identify duplication both of activity and of legislation, particularly with respect to the Higher Education Support Act, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act, the Education Services for Overseas Students Act and the TEQSA Act. There is no evidence to suggest that the government has given this any consideration and the concern is that, perhaps ironically, we will see a patchwork of amendments and regulation down the track to address this omission.

Similarly, there is no evidence in this bill that the government has given consideration to aligning the activities of TEQSA with those of ASQA, the national vocational regulator, as recommended in the review. And the all-important issue of sharing data across the sector, and using existing processes, such as the higher education compacts, is nowhere to be found. While all of this cannot, and should not, be included in such a bill, the government's position should at least be clear. Just as TEQSA needs to fit with the broader architecture of the higher education system, this bill should form part of a broader response to the sector's concerns about red tape.

There are recommendations of the review that seem to align with sections of the bill. It recommended that TEQSA's function be reduced so that it can focus on its core activities as a regulator and it recommended that TEQSA be able to assign decision making to case managers and other TEQSA staff as appropriate. But again, without proper consideration and consultation with the universities, with higher education providers and with students, we cannot know what adverse consequences may arise from the way in which these are to be implemented. In particular, we need to fully explore the implications of being able to delegate such a broad suite of activities to any Commonwealth appointee. It is one thing to legislate more freedom to delegate, but we should also do our best to avoid perverse consequences from this legislation, and proper scrutiny through a parliamentary committee with input from universities would be the best way to do this.

That raises one of the greatest concerns about this bill: the precedent set by the removal of properly appointed government officials through legislation. You need to look back very far indeed to find a similar use of legislation, and that makes it very concerning, to say the least. And it leaves us to ask: who is safe? Where else will the government seek to use the parliament to depose properly appointed officials? This bill requires examination, because our higher education sector—our universities, our private providers—should continue to be places of excellence. This is particularly important not only for our domestic students but also for our international education sector, which is, as many in this place know, our fourth largest export industry. This sector sustains more than 100,000 jobs and generates some $15 billion in annual revenue. It is our largest export earner after the commodities of iron, coal and gold. Prospects for sustained growth are good. The OECD estimates that there could be three million more students worldwide by 2020 who will be seeking an offshore education. Asia will continue to be a source of growth in the years to come. But we face profound challenges to ensure and retain Australia's market share in international education. Competitors, especially in North America and Europe, are making up for a shortfall in revenue following the global financial crisis through a renewed and active emphasis on international students, conspicuously from Asia and our region. This competition will only increase in the foreseeable future.

Australia's reputation for quality must be preserved. It is one of our most precious resources and a great competitive advantage. At a minimum, there needs to be consultation, there needs to be a policy statement and there needs to be recognition of the principles that are at stake. Quality must not be sacrificed in a blind haste to cut red tape. That is why Labor will be moving that this matter be put under further scrutiny in the other place, with a view to amending the bill if necessary. TEQSA can, with the right changes, regain the confidence of the higher education sector. It can, with the right approach, become the trusted regulator Australia needs. The bill before us sits too much in isolation to do the job we are asking of it. This is our concern, and we feel that further consultation and consideration of its detail needs to occur, which is why I commend the amendment that the opposition is putting before the House to members and seek their support for that opportunity.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Mitchell ): The original question was that the bill be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Cunningham has moved an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

 

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