Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise today to speak on this bill, which gives effect to the government's decision to implement recommendations from the Review of Higher Education Regulation report by Professor Kwong Lee Dow and Professor Valerie Braithwaite. The coalition government is determined to implement an appropriate deregulatory agenda to support higher education providers to deliver the highest quality teaching, learning and research. The coalition has a vision for a high-quality sector which strives for excellence and is competitive nationally and internationally. We believe such a system is best managed within a framework where providers themselves are predominantly responsible for maintaining and enhancing quality and are supported in doing so. Our educational institutions on the whole comprise people at all levels committed to ensuring quality and striving for excellence for their students and in support of the Australian community more generally.
In an increasingly competitive and global education market, it is crucial that Australia continue to demonstrate and further develop the quality of its higher education sector. To ensure Australia's ongoing competitiveness, an effective regulator is a necessary and crucial component of the higher education regulatory architecture. To ensure that universities are able to focus their energies on what they do best and spend less time on compliance and reporting, the government has accepted all of the recommendations of the Review of higher education regulation report and is committed to deliberate action to remove red tape.
The Australian Council for Private Education and Training issued a statement saying that the introduction of the TEQSA Amendment Bill comes as very good news. I quote:
It shows a government clearly committed to lifting onerous and unnecessary regulation on high performing higher education institutions.
This bill will enable TEQSA to delegate its functions and powers to appropriate level staff within the organisation, which will speed up decision making and ensure faster processing of applications. The amendment will also ensure providers wishing to appeal a TEQSA decision will be able to access an internal review mechanism first rather than having to seek review through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, currently the first step. This bill will also allow TEQSA to extend the period of registration and accreditation of providers, allowing for greater flexibility in TEQSA's regulatory response. The Australian universities industry has reacted positively to the government's plan to accept all 11 recommendations of the Review of higher education regulation report. This demonstrates that this coalition government is delivering when it comes to reducing red tape and the burden of regulation on industry.
Professor Kwong Lee Dow, co-author of the review, commented on this bill, saying that as it follows the recommendations of the review they had prepared for the previous government he is, not surprisingly, in agreement with the key elements of the bill. Professor Lee Dow noted that we need a single national regulator for higher education and went on to acknowledge that it is widely agreed that, as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency we have now took 2½ years of policy formulation, drafting and reworking legislation to set up, there is no point in redoing all that work and expecting to commence in 2016. He said:
The most fundamental change is to shed the quality assessments, and thereby the broader quality assurance function, and so to focus on core regulation.
He noted that it is important to encourage continuous improvement and to keep quality assurance issues in front of institutions and their people, and he said:
That remains a top order issue, but it is not feasible for the regulator to do justice to it, given its other commitments, the timing required to discharge those commitments with proper dispatch, and the kind of staff needed to give confidence to institutions that quality assurance is understood by the regulator. Quality improvement and so assurance requires peer review, often at a course level, and a different approach to that required for hard edged regulatory decisions about whether institutions and their offerings meet minimal standards.
Since commencing its regulatory functions in January 2012, TEQSA has developed a significant backlog in provider re-registration applications and course accreditation and re-accreditation applications. This backlog has been caused in part by TEQSA's inability to delegate decision-making responsibilities to appropriate TEQSA staff.
The TEQSA Act requires the agency to establish and maintain a national register of higher education providers which is publicly available. The national register is the authoritative source of information on the status of registered higher education providers in Australia. Providers being assessed for re-registration are listed as 'registration pending' on the national register. The timely delivery of provider re-registration applications is crucial to give assurance to students who are considering enrolling or are currently enrolled with providers that are 'pending registration'. TEQSA also has a significant backlog of new course accreditation and renewal of course accreditation applications. To ensure Australia's higher education sector remains competitive in a dynamic, global environment, it is vital that providers can develop and offer courses in a timely fashion. Unnecessary delays in course accreditation applications may impact on the sector's competitiveness and may discourage innovation. The restriction on the delegation of a number of powers has contributed to delays in finalising provider applications.
Where decisions have been made at the highest levels within TEQSA, applications are prevented from accessing TEQSA's internal review mechanism. As a result, applicants seeking to appeal a TEQSA decision must request the review through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The amendments to be made by part 2 of schedule 1 would allow decisions to be delegated to a single commissioner. This would enable faster decision making and provide applicants with greatly improved access to internal review of TEQSA's reviewable decisions.
The review did say that the agency should concentrate on regulation of minimum standards, leaving broader quality assurance to universities, and that it could get by with fewer commissioners. The University of Melbourne's Richard James, pro vice-chancellor for equity and student engagement as well as a member of the Higher Education Standards Panel, said the bill was 'clearly a major shake-up of TEQSA, but one consistent with the thinking of the Lee Dow and Braithwaite review'.
This TEQSA Amendment Bill sets the stage for the next round of efforts to focus and streamline TEQSA's regulatory role. In line with TEQSA's refined functions and increased efficiency, the measures in this bill will provide the minister with greater flexibility to determine the number of commissioners to be appointed. It will remove the requirement to appoint a specific number of part-time and full-time commissioners and will separate the roles and responsibilities of the chief commissioner and the chief executive officer. It must be reiterated that all current individual TEQSA commissioners, including the chief commissioner, are eligible for reappointment if this bill is passed.
A significant recalibration of the relationship between the sector and the regulator lies ahead. Excellence in higher education is essential to Australia's competitiveness in the Asian century. There is an international consensus that the reach, quality and performance of a nation's higher education system are key determinants of its economic and social progress. Moreover, an effective, high-quality and streamlined regulatory approach is a fundamentally important component of a competitive higher education system.
The University of Queensland, one of Australia's leading research universities and a member of the Group of Eight, has its main campus in my electorate of Ryan. The University of Queensland is embracing the government's New Colombo Plan and currently attracts thousands of international students across all faculties. I look forward to seeing the University of Queensland achieve even more as the coalition government removes the strangle of red tape on the higher education industry. I commend this bill to the House.