House debates

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

9:59 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak today on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020. I move the following amendment:

That all 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 Government has:

(1) damaged the quality of Australia's world-class education system;

(2) abandoned university workers during the pandemic;

(3) cut billions in funding and made it harder and more expensive for students to go to university; and

(4) done nothing that will help young people get into priority courses and jobs".

This bill amends the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency Act 2011, the TEQSA Act, to clarify and streamline the regulatory framework of higher education providers. The amendments seek to give effect to recommendations made in the Coaldrake review of the higher education provider category standards. Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake AO completed the review in October 2019. The purpose of the Coaldrake review was to ensure that provider category standards in the national regulatory framework remain fit for purpose. The review made 10 recommendations to simplify and rebalance the current categories of higher education providers, including reducing the overall number of categories from six down to four.

The amendments provided by this bill differ slightly from the recommendations of the Coaldrake review by adopting 'university colleges' as one of the category names rather than, as recommended by Coaldrake, 'institute of higher education'. Labor is concerned that the provisions in this bill do partly ignore Professor Coaldrake's recommendations, and we need to be sure that this change won't jeopardise the reputation of our excellent Australian universities. To that end, Labor has referred this bill to a Senate inquiry.

The bill also allows a decision by TEQSA to refuse to change a provider's category to be reviewed and provides TEQSA with legislative authority to assume control of higher education student records in the unfortunate event that the provider ceases operation. The bill will ensure the protection of the word 'university' from use in internet domain names, by requiring the minister's consent before any such use. I will come back to this aspect of the bill a bit later in the speech, because it's slightly problematic. These amendments are welcome. They will be helpful in simplifying the provider categories of higher education providers.

Currently the threshold standards 2015 determine what criteria are required for an institution to be registered in a provider category. The current threshold standards 2015 provide that institutions who register as Australian universities, Australian university colleges and Australian university of specialisation are currently required to undertake:

… research that leads to the creation of new knowledge and original creative endeavour at least in those broad fields of study in which Masters Degrees (Research) and Doctoral Degrees (Research) are offered

There are no requirements about the volume of research to be undertaken or the quality of the research to be undertaken. The Coaldrake review recommended:

Along with teaching, the undertaking of research is, and should remain, a defining feature of what it means to be a university in Australia; a threshold benchmark of quality and quantity of research should be included in the Higher Education Provider Category Standards. This threshold benchmark for research quality should be augmented over time.

The bill provides that TEQSA have regard to the quality of the research undertaken as part of its consideration of whether a provider meets the threshold standards in relation to the research requirement for the provider category that they have applied for. Labor will always welcome strengthening research requirements for our universities.

In the city and in the bush, universities are pivotal in changing lives and uplifting communities, whether it be in the wonderful Griffith University at Nathan campus or Griffith University down in Logan campus—wherever it is—we know that universities change lives. We have world-class researchers at our universities. We should always be striving to enhance their efforts and increase their endeavours. I'm concerned that other changes made by the government, including recently passed legislation that will reduce the funding that universities have available for research, may impact on this otherwise welcome change. Again, Labor will await the findings of the Senate inquiry.

I'm grateful the minister has responded relatively promptly to the recommendations in the Coaldrake review. This is a refreshing change for the Morrison government. They have not reacted so swiftly to the changing circumstances that smashed into the university sector this year. We know universities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, universities were one of the first sectors to be hit when international borders were closed, locking international students out. I remember clearly the guy who came up with the 'Where the bloody hell are you?' campaign turned around to international students and said, 'Go home'—incredible damage done to our brand. Obviously, the other factor is the projected revenue cut just from international students being locked out. It's about $16 billion—

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

He said, 'Go home.' I take that interjection. He actually said, 'Go home.' It's about $16 billion of cuts from international students, but the tail of the damage could linger longer and damage deeper for years to come.

That's on top of the $2.2 billion in cuts that have already been made to university funding by the Liberal-National government. And now that the job-ready graduates bill is passed, universities can expect an additional funding cut of $1 billion a year. The government claims the job-ready graduates reform is to encourage students to study maths, science and engineering. That is a noble goal; I do admit that. But mark my words, the policy is not going to do that. In fact, I bet it will achieve the opposite. The reforms will actually incentivise universities to offer more humanities courses and fewer maths and science courses because they'll receive more funding for the non-priority courses, including humanities, than they will for the priority courses like maths and science. Currently, universities receive $28,958 resourcing to teach a science course. Under the new reforms, universities will only receive $24,200 resourcing for that same course. That's a cut of $4,758, irrespective of what's going on with the cuts delivered by international students not arriving.

To make things even worse for universities this year, the Morrison government has deliberately blocked them from access to JobKeeper payments. Three times the Morrison government changed the rules to deliberately exclude universities from the $130 billion wage subsidy program. This government has absolutely neglected universities during this pandemic—this health and economic crisis. Not surprisingly, more than 12,000 jobs have been lost across the country already, and it's estimated that, by the end of the year, 21,000 university jobs will be lost. That's 21,000 households hit because of the neglect from the Morrison government. Just last week, Griffith University, who have a campus in my electorate of Moreton, announced they'd be cutting almost 300 university jobs. This Morrison government could have stopped the job losses—academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners, security—but it didn't. All of those workers have families, and they're just trying to get through this challenging year, put food on the table and keep the roof over their heads. Instead, the Morrison government hasn't lifted a finger to help them.

Sadly, regional universities are the ones that will be hit hardest. Regional universities support 14,000 jobs. Go beyond the cities, and see how that will play out. When Prime Minister Morrison attacks the bush, where are the voices of the Nationals, to stick up for their universities? Regional universities are huge employers in places like Cairns—a town that's actually doing it very tough because of tourism—Townsville, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Wollongong, Armidale, Bathurst, Newcastle, Ballarat, Bendigo, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Launceston and Burnie. They are huge employers in those towns. These districts have had a horrendous year. Many of them have had to shut down campuses; they've had jobs cut. And that's often, in some places, coming on top of 12 months of fire, flood and drought—all those other things—as well as COVID-19.

In May, we saw Central Queensland University—Queensland's largest regional university—announce that it would close three of its rural campuses, in places like Yeppoon, Biloela and Noosa. At the same time, Central Queensland University was forced to cut 182 jobs. Did we hear anything from the National Party? No—nothing. This not only affects the university staff and students; it has a wider impact on the nation. We know that seven in 10 regional university graduates take up work outside of metropolitan areas and that those universities and students reinvest more than $2 billion a year in those regional communities with university campuses. Once students put on the Akubra, seven out of 10 of them at a bush university will graduate and won't take that Akubra off. They'll stay in the bush. So the impact of these closures will be felt for many, many years.

The incredibly talented researchers at our universities are doing remarkable work during this very difficult year. Researchers are working around the clock to find a vaccine, with some promising trials occurring right now. Just this week, the University of Queensland in Brisbane announced they've produced locally made coronavirus proteins in their state-of-the-art laboratory which are proving useful in a sophisticated new blood test for COVID-19. Our universities may end up saving humanity, but they can't rely on the Morrison government to protect their jobs. Education is actually our fourth-largest export industry. I saw the Prime Minister, in a former life, bring in a lump of coal, but he's never brought in a university degree and recognised our fourth-largest export industry.

The Morrison government made a deliberate choice not to help universities during this crisis, and students are also going to be hit by the Job-ready Graduates reforms. These reforms are going to make it harder and more expensive for students to go to university. In fact, some students will be playing double for their degrees. The reforms are unlikely to create an incentive for students to study maths, science or engineering just because they may be slightly cheaper. Either students want to study maths, science and engineering or they don't. I don't think any educator would agree that students should be making their future study choices, something that will determine the rest of their life, based on the cost of the degree. Saddling students with a mountain of debt before they've even commenced their career could potentially create a disincentive to study at all. That can't be good for students or for our nation at a time when we need our best and brightest most.

We know that by 2025 Australia will require another 3.8 million university qualifications. Australians need our universities to be skilling up students for jobs for the future. Universities need support, not constant cuts, and students need to be inspired to study the course of their choice without fear of the great burden of debt. The Morrison government has promised to fund 39,000 new university places by 2023, but the truth is they're cost-shifting university education to students by increasing student debt. Students overall will be paying an extra seven per cent of the total cost of their university courses because of decisions made by the Morrison government.

That is in the context of the class of 2020, who are coming to the end of their school year right now—what an exceptionally difficult year! As politicians, we spend a lot of time with our graduating classes. This year has been incredible. They've not had the benefit of spending as much time with their peers due to COVID-19 restrictions, be it on sports or social activities. Many classes have had to be undertaken online, and that is not always ideal. It does suit some kids, but most have suffered because of it. The usual stresses of year 12 have been exacerbated by anxiety about a virus that has caused more than a million deaths so far across the globe. Families have been separated by travel restrictions, grandparents have been isolated, and then, to top it off, the Morrison government is making it harder and more expensive for this graduating class to go to university. What a gift!

I understand the minister will be moving an amendment to his bill to ensure that the process around limiting the use of the word 'university' in internet domain names is possible in a practical sense. But Labor calls on the government to explain how this change will be enforced. We would expect regular checks to be made to ensure providers are not illegally representing themselves as universities through their domain names, because my understanding is that you automatically are given a domain name if no other entity has that domain name, so practically it will require oversight. We need to do all we can to protect the excellent reputation of Australian universities; we should not let people undermine that.

Labor will not oppose this bill in the House today, but we have referred it to a Senate inquiry to better understand the impact that these changes will have on the sector, and we will await the report of that Senate inquiry.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Jim ChalmersJim Chalmers (Rankin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

It's seconded and I reserve my right to speak.

10:14 am

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

By investing in higher education, we are truly investing in Australia's future and that of our workforce. It means that we can ensure we have the skills not only for today but also for the future and working within our economy. And we all know that the world is pivoting in the 21st-century economy to a knowledge economy, so universities are now more important than ever. This bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020, will help futureproof Australia's higher education system by cutting red tape and simplifying regulation.

The Morrison government wants to ensure we support school leavers, international students and those looking to obtain new skills or to reskill through higher education in Australia. Sadly, many have lost their jobs through COVID. Many will be seeking to reskill, and they need those tools to succeed in the area of future job growth. We all know that, when there is a recession, universities and higher education are countercyclical, and that is because people know that, in order to be competitive, they need to upskill. Pleasingly, Australia seems to be coming out of the COVID-19 recession faster than anticipated, and that is because of the great work by all Australians in keeping our country safe and following the guidelines of the states and territories with regard to COVID-safe approaches. The Morrison government knows the strength of higher education and has made a record investment of more than $18 billion in Australia's universities during 2020.

I need to pick up on something that a member opposite said earlier. He said that we locked universities out of JobKeeper. This is misleading and is actually false. There is absolutely no doubt that universities can access JobKeeper if they then can show that they had a decrease of either 30 per cent or 50 per cent in turnover. The fact that they didn't access JobKeeper is evidence that they have managed to keep going through what has been a very difficult time, and some of that has been because they've continued to be significantly subsidised by the government. Under the recently announced Job-ready Graduates Package, the government's current funding of $18 billion a year will grow to $20 billion by 2024. We continue to back in universities.

I know universities are always wanting more funding. I have been a university professor both here in Australia and in the United Kingdom. I know how difficult it is in the area of universities. That is because it's a very privileged position to be in a university, to be able, in the area of research in particular, to ask important questions that the community needs answering. As such, it can seem very difficult and very competitive for the sector. But, as a government, we support universities—not only the great work they're doing in teaching but also the wonderful work they're doing in research.

There are already around 1.5 million students studying in Australian higher education, and the new arrangements under the Job-ready Graduates Package will create 100,000 new university places by 2030. In September the Morrison government also announced it will provide $326 million to deliver an additional 12,000 undergraduate Commonwealth supported places from 2021, just next year. This will provide additional support for students, in particular in regional and remote Australia. I would like to comment that this is incredibly important, because we know that students who spend time in regional and remote Australia often put down roots. They meet people that may become their future partner. They understand how rewarding it can be to work in small community towns. It's very important that we invest in and support our regional and remote communities so that families can support their children locally but also so that it encourages people from the cities to explore and seek new ways of having a great life in different parts of Australia.

This bill amends the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011, colloquially known as the TEQSA Act, to implement the recommendations of the Coaldrake Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards. It will introduce a measure to preserve and protect the academic records of students whose higher education provider has ceased to exist. It also contains a small number of other measures intended to improve the regulation of Australia's higher education sector by strengthening the TEQSA Act's administration and the TEQSA's regulatory role. The review was completed in 2019 by Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake AO, who recommended amending the provider category standards to clarify and streamline the regulatory framework to ensure it is fit for purpose for all stakeholders, including students, the regulator, and current and future providers.

The Morrison government has accepted all 10 of the Coaldrake review's recommendations. The key recommendation of the review was to both simplify and enhance the categorisation of higher education providers through a number of measures: firstly, reducing the number of domestic university categories from three down to a single category, called an 'Australian university'; secondly, reducing the number of overseas university categories from two down to one, with the definition 'overseas university'; and, thirdly, enhancing the categories for non-university providers by introducing a second category for those providers with a track record of the highest quality delivery and learning outcomes, called 'institute of higher education', and also a new category of provider to be called 'university college'.

The university college category will introduce a mark of quality and better signal diversity and differentiation in the non-university sector. These signals are very important in the marketplace—I know this as both a university professor and a mother of four young adults who are entering the higher education sector as we speak. It will provide an opportunity for the highest quality providers to operate in regional and thinner markets without the burden imposed by the need to undertake research in the university categories. It will also offer an achievable and practical transitional pathway for institutions seeking to work towards university status. This is very important for the sector, as we encourage new providers and a free market to ensure that these categories are opening up diversity and providing new educational models as we go forward.

Importantly, the changes to this act will provide a new pathway for the future establishment of greenfield universities. The university sector is changing—it's changing gradually, but it is changing—as it responds to the needs of students and the needs of society. As society changes, as it becomes more digitalised, as the economy changes, as we move to a knowledge and service provider economy in the 21st century, universities too need to pivot and provide market products that are fresh, innovative and good for the students who require them so that they are job-ready for the future. Should a state or territory government or significant Australian or overseas entity wish to establish a new university from scratch, the changes to this act will enable that.

The new provider categories also clarify the obligation of institutions in both the Australian university and university college categories to be active participants in their communities and enhance the employability of graduates through civic leadership and engagement with employers and industry. I have to stress how important this is. Universities cannot just be ivory towers. The best universities are the ones that understand that giving a good education in the 21st century also includes providing civic leadership and engagement with future employers and potential industry partners because it gives an opportunity for students to prepare for their future, not just be spilled out into the workplace with no skills and no opportunities. Providing that when they are in the university environment is, I think, a very empowering obligation of these higher education providers.

The new categories also clarify how the quality of research activity will be assessed in the Australian university category, giving more certainty to institutions about the expectations for research quality. As a medical research professor, I really do welcome these changes. It's so important that the universities' research is of the highest quality; we know that that drives university rankings. More importantly, nowadays, university research needs to have a target in making sure that it is relevant, that it's useful and that it's going to make a difference to the world.

The amendments to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act in this bill are consequential to the amendments to the standards themselves, which will be remade through a new legislative instrument once this bill has been passed. The changes to the standards have been drafted by the Higher Education Standards Panel, as required by section 58 of the TEQSA Act. These amendments will present the threshold standards as a single unified framework instead of four distinct types of threshold standards. This will enable the structure of the threshold standards instrument to be simplified, making it clearer for providers, students and others to read and use.

Other measures include reference to the new Australian Qualifications Framework qualification type of 'undergraduate certificate' in the definition of 'higher education award'. These measures will also allow TEQSA to extend the period of a provider's registration or course accreditation more than once, which will help TEQSA manage its regulatory workload better and provide low-risk providers with additional flexibility, including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also allow a review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of a decision by TEQSA not to change a provider's category if this was requested. Finally, these changes will ensure protection of the word 'university' in Australian internet domain names in a similar way to existing provisions that protect the use of the word 'university' in company and business names.

The Morrison government recognises the importance of research to Australia. I think all Australians, through the COVID pandemic, have become armchair epidemiologists. I welcome this. It's wonderful to be having conversations with people about things like sampling frames, prevalence, case indices and how to respond to the COVID crisis. I think we've all been glued to the press conferences by the Prime Minister, by the chief medical officer and by the states' and territories' premiers and state leaders or state ministers. It's very important the Australian public is on board with understanding the empowerment that science brings to our response to COVID and that, as an evidence base and an expert informed government, we've been listening to the power of science.

The Australian community expects science to help deliver technology and innovation to provide a better life for all of us and to provide better products to the rest of the world, because that's what Australia is good at: being resilient, resourceful and smart. There is recognition that research is also fundamental to the role of universities and in sustaining Australia's reputation for world-class research. This is why the Minister for Education has worked closely with the university sector, through CEOs, forums and the Research Sustainability Working Group, chaired by Professor Deborah Terry, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, to develop a plan to support this important sector, especially as international student income has taken a significant hit from COVID. I note the Minister for Education has also been working very closely with regard to the future for international students returning to Australia and supporting universities in this very important outcome.

The Morrison government continues to invest in research infrastructure to support improved management. I'd particularly like to welcome a recent announcement made by the Minister for Education. In addition to investing a further $1 billion in research to the university sector, which I understand has been welcomed by the sector, there are further announcements that the Minister for Education has made recently. This includes looking at the use of Indigenous data collections. The government will provide $8.9 million to create a data network that will transform how Australia's social and cultural data is accessed, curated and analysed. The project will support the development of e-research platforms and tools for visualisation, transcription and entity recognition. This investment will improve the reliability and consistency of data for Indigenous Australians to better support evidence based Indigenous policymaking. This project will complement the additional $1 billion for university research in this year's budget and the $5.8 million to design a scheme to accelerate turning research into new products, job creation, productivity gains and economic growth.

Our government recognises the strength of research. It recognises the strength of science. It recognises the strength of an evidence based approach. It's absolutely clear, looking internationally, how our COVID response has been informed by our scientists and by our researchers. The national-scale infrastructure investment will provide significant benefits for all Australians and drive the development of systems and tools for capturing new and emerging data. This funding will build on existing research infrastructure to enhance research in a broad range of fields and improve the capacity of researchers to access, preserve and disseminate quantitative and qualitative social science data sources. This investment is part of the 2020 national research investment plan, which provides almost $160 million for national research infrastructure projects. I know how important these infrastructure projects are to the university sector.

Furthermore, with regard to this bill, Professor Coaldrake recommended that standards for Australian universities should include a quality benchmark of world standard research. This is incredibly important going forward. I have to say I know the member for Curtin has some comments to make about research standards in her speech, but it's important that Australian researchers hold themselves up to the highest standards. I think there's a lot more work that needs to be done with regard to global standards and global rankings of universities. The government will also ensure that research of national standings in fields specific to Australia— (Time expired)

10:29 am

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This chamber, this parliament, is full of people whose lives have been enhanced by university degrees. It's full of people whose opportunities for work and for civic engagement have been enhanced by university degrees. Some people in this place are the first person in their families to ever attend university. My husband is not only the only person in his family to finish high school; he is the first person to attend university and is now a professor at Monash University. My father was a public school teacher and then the head of the School of Education at Charles Sturt University, dedicated to teaching teachers to teach. There are members of this chamber who have worked at universities.

There are many, many people in this chamber whose work opportunities were enhanced because they studied degrees such as law degrees; they studied accounting, they studied administration, they studied economics—which I'll return to, but one might think that is a pretty important area of study when we're going through the largest recession in 100 years in this country—and they studied commerce. People in this chamber studied communications and, I suspect, marketing. And many, many people in this chamber studied humanities. We got the benefit of studying those subjects, which led to the diverse range of jobs and life experiences that we bring to this place and that enhance our ability to represent our communities. But, unfortunately, this government wants to pull up the drawbridge behind all of us and make it that much harder for people in our electorates to study those subjects, to reap those benefits and to have those opportunities in life.

It might not seem like a lot to some of the members on the government benches to leave university with a degree and a debt of about $58,000. But I can tell you that, in my community, that makes going to university almost inconceivable. It doesn't matter that it doesn't have to be repaid immediately. It doesn't matter that their HECS scheme will mean it has to be repaid. What matters is that we are asking young people to leave university with nearly $60,000 worth of debt hanging over them, and we are doing so in an economy that is going to be struggling to recover from this recession for years to come. It is absolutely galling that members of this government—the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and the front bench, which is full of people with university degrees—come into this chamber day after day and talk about the economic impacts of the COVID recession and what they're doing to help people find jobs and to help productivity increase and the economy increase—and at the same time they have done, one might think, everything they can to make it harder for universities to get through the pandemic and to make it harder for people who come from a background where $58,000 debt is inconceivable to get the benefits those members got when they went to university.

And it's easy enough to disparage an arts degree, isn't it: 'That's basket weaving.' Do you know what people study when they study arts degrees, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker? They study philosophy, they study critical thinking and they study history—and we know what happens if you don't learn from your history. They study economics. Like me, they study psychology. They study social work. People that study humanities learn to think, learn to be critical and learn to be innovative. When we're talking about the future of work and being skills-ready, it is absolutely important and laudable that we get more people studying STEM. They wouldn't be a person in this chamber that isn't behind that. But when we talk about the future of work and STEM, and automation and the impact of technology, the jobs that aren't able to be automated will require people to be able to think innovatively, to be critical and to be imaginative. We will need people to work in the care economy and to have the skills to be able to look after others, and to think about better ways to look after others. And, while this government might not want people to be in universities thinking critically about policies, coming up with innovative ideas or applying ethics and philosophy to the decisions that are made in policy, that is an absolutely critical role for a civilised, forward-thinking, educated community.

As I've said in speeches before, we are looking at driverless cars in our near future, as inconceivable as that might be to those of us who grew up with the Jetsons and thought it was a fairy tale. We're looking at driverless cars. Of course, it's scientists and engineers and digital specialists who are designing them. But do you know who is working out how to make driverless cars make the decisions that we make, subconsciously or unconsciously, about whether to drive up a kerb and hit a tree or keep driving and hit a person? It is ethicists, philosophers, thinkers—people who are in the humanities sections of universities. That's why the government's Job-ready Graduates Package is fundamentally flawed. As members have said before me, it's also flawed because we're looking at a university sector where there is a perverse incentive for universities, who have had billions and billions cut out of their funding, to now offer more places to those cheaper degrees than the ones the government thinks it wants people to study.

The member for Higgins asserted that it is absolutely false that universities have been cut out of JobKeeper. I know that the member worked at a university, but if she were to go and talk to someone she would find that they are absolutely flabbergasted to hear that they were cut out of JobKeeper deliberately. Every time it seemed that universities would meet the thresholds to qualify for JobKeeper, what did this government do? It changed the thresholds. They've been cut out. Twelve-and-a-half thousand jobs across the university sector have been lost.

Universities were one of the first sectors to be hit by the pandemic. Universities, which have been relying on foreign students in part because of a lack of proper funding, lost their foreign students and were hit hard. They tried to explain time and time again to this government that it wouldn't just be their direct employees that would be hit; it would also hit the local economic ecosphere around universities—the cleaners, the maintenance people, the cafes that would have to be shut down. An economic ecosphere builds up around a university. We know that in my electorate of Dunkley. We know that with Monash University Peninsula campus; it is part of our ecosphere and we feel the cuts.

Before I finish, I want to pay tribute to two employees of Monash University Peninsula campus who, at the end of this year, will no longer be employees. Monash University, as we all know, has felt the financial impact of COVID-19. It has a funding shortfall of about $350 million because of that and has had to cut back. They didn't want to cut back in the areas of staffing—of course they didn't—but they've had to cut back in areas of student admin and engagement, research support and the library. Sadly, at Monash University, one of the decisions is that the office of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Major Campuses and Student Engagement) at Peninsula campus has been disestablished.

I know that Monash University will continue its commitment to the Peninsula campus, and the advisory committee I am privileged to be on will continue to operate. But one of the consequences is that we are losing Melinda Cafarella and Michael Watchorn. Melinda and Michael have made an outstanding contribution to not just Monash University but also our community over many years. We owe them our gratitude and thanks. Melinda commenced at the university in 2006 and Michael in 2012. Together they have coordinated eight open days, welcoming in excess of 25,000 prospective students and their families through the gates. They have welcomed and oriented in excess of 11,383 new students in 18 intakes. Michael has worked very hard with the region's industry partners, schools and local government—and state and federal governments, I might also say—on countless projects and committees. They've overseen the planning, build and official opening of the Monash Peninsula Activity and Recreation Centre, Gillies Hall and the new student hub. Gillies Hall is an amazing example of an economical and sustainable building. They have overseen a targeted regional marketing campaign for the campus, establishing a campus social media presence; hosted countless conferences for local organisations; and run hundreds of seminars, staff engagement events and workshops for internal and external stakeholders. Michael arranged for Monash University to host my first ever Dunkley students environment day last year, where students from high schools across my electorate came and talked about sustainability and what we can do to make a more sustainable community, state and country, and I thank him again for that. They have also overseen numerous capital development projects to improve the campus amenity and student experience. They will be missed, and, on behalf of our community, I thank them for their leadership, for connecting the campus with the community and for giving the campus a profile. I commit to doing all that I can to carry on their work.

Everyone, from both sides of this parliament, who gives a speech on universities talks about the importance of universities and research to our community, and I accept that everyone feels that genuinely. But it is not the words, in the end, that a government should be measured by. It's the impact; it's what actually happens. We know that, in the university sector, we have outstanding researchers, lecturers and administrators who were already working in highly casualised and insecure jobs. They were already working contract to contract. The idea of tenure has all but disappeared for many people. For some, that's fine. For some, a five-year contract is what they want, but, for many people working in the university sector, it's not what they want, and they certainly don't want rolling 12-month contracts. Just doorknocking across my electorate of Dunkley, I have come across many employees of universities, many of whom have been scientific researchers, whose biggest concern, which they've raised with me, is the insecurity of employment. Now, of course, they're faced with greater insecurity of employment because universities have been cut out of JobKeeper and because there have been over $2 billion worth of cuts before the extra billion dollars' worth of cuts with the job-ready legislation and because of the brutal impact of the lack of international students.

So, while measures in this legislation are welcome, and while this government has made announcements about further funding for research, that's really a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. This is a government that was able to bring in legislation for an integrity unit for university students, to make sure they didn't cheat at exams during the COVID pandemic, but wasn't able to bring in an integrity commission to oversee politicians and public servants, because apparently they were too busy during the pandemic. This is a government that, when it needs to pick a fight about anything, from freedom of speech to the way in which students behave, turns to the university sector to demonise it. This is a government that is suggesting that the range of degrees in humanities, law, economics and commerce aren't worthy degrees as to job preparedness. The figures that we quote about jobs that are lost and funding that has been cut aren't figures; they're people. I've spoken before about Nicole in my electorate whose son is doing first year law this year and whose daughter will start law next year. She's going to graduate with double the debt of her brother. It's not fair. It's not right. And the government has time to fix it. (Time expired)

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call the member for Curtin, I just want to remind members of standing order 62 and ask them just to be cognisant of that, particularly when people are speaking. The question is that the amendment be agreed to.

10:44 am

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I speak in favour of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020, I want to address comments that have been made over the preceding weeks about universities' access to JobKeeper. Statements that universities were excluded from JobKeeper are actually a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation of what actually transpired. Universities are eligible to apply for JobKeeper if they, like all other organisations, satisfy the turnover tests. If a university with a turnover of under $1 billion has lost 30 per cent or more of their turnover, they can apply for JobKeeper. If a university with a turnover of more than $1 billion suffers a 50 per cent turnover loss, they can apply for JobKeeper. Charities, if they have suffered a loss of 15 per cent, can apply for JobKeeper.

Universities have been hit hard. At the present time, I don't think any university has actually applied for JobKeeper. To me, that is somewhat positive, because it means they haven't satisfied the 30 per cent turnover loss or the 50 per cent turnover loss. Universities are $100-million-plus businesses—some more than $1 billion. These are not small charities the likes of which satisfy the 15 per cent turnover test; they are multi-hundred-million-dollar organisations. They have boards. They have financial and accounting audit committees that advise them on investments and advise them on expenditure. They are big corporate entities, even though they're not for profit—big entities with access to experts and advice. They didn't need to be included within the definition of a charity. They are treated exactly like all other organisations of their size and with their capabilities. So, any statement that they were excluded from JobKeeper is actually a misconstruction of what actually happened and what is actually the case. That is not to say that universities are not hurting; they are hurting.

I note that this particular bill, which I'm pleased to speak in favour of, proposes to amend the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act, and it's going to do this in a number of ways—first of all, to give effect to the government's decision to implement the recommendations arising from the review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards, about which I will speak more in a moment. It's also going to give effect to an outstanding recommendation from the review of the impact of the TEQSA Act on the higher education sector, otherwise known as the impact review, which is effectively going to join four threshold standards into one single, unified framework, which will be clearer to read and to use. Finally, the bill is going to improve regulation of the Australian higher education sector through a small number of other measures, including ensuring that student records can be appropriately handled following a provider's ceasing to operate and that the term 'university' as it appears in Australian internet domain names is protected.

Australia's higher education sector has established a reputation globally as an education leader. This position is supported by Australia's higher education quality assurance framework, which comprises a national regulatory body, known as TEQSA, and is underpinned by strong threshold standards and provider category standards. All higher education providers, including universities, must be registered with TEQSA in order to offer higher education courses in Australia. TEQSA was established in 2011 and became operational in 2012. It was a key part of the Bradley review undertaken in 2008 to ensure the quality of the Australian higher education sector and the education it delivers. TEQSA protects the quality of Australia's higher education through its assessment of compliance with the threshold standards. TEQSA is generally well regarded in the sector and internationally, and this was noted in the 2017 impact review, conducted by Deloitte.

The provider category standards actually pre-date the Bradley review. They are based on the earlier national protocols for higher education, which were first adopted by state and territory governments in 2000 and updated in 2007. The national protocols were used by states and territories for the regulation and accreditation of higher education prior to the establishment of TEQSA in 2011. The purpose of the national protocols was to assure students and the community that higher education institutions in Australia met identified criteria and were subject to appropriate government regulation. The national protocols were designed to ensure consistent criteria and standards across Australia for the recognition of new universities, the operation of overseas higher education institutions in Australia and the accreditation of higher education courses to be offered by non-self-accrediting providers. Following the Bradley review and with the establishment of TEQSA came new threshold standards which were tabled in parliament in 2011. As noted before, these initial threshold standards were largely based on the national protocols and were put into four separate standards.

The particular bill that is before us today is focusing on the Higher Education Provider Category Standards. The PCS, or provider category standards, define categories of higher education providers and requirements expected of them for registration by TEQSA. At present, prior to their being amended by this bill, there are six categories for all higher education providers: five for universities and one for other providers. The five university categories are Australian University, Australian University College, Australian University of Specialisation, Overseas University and Overseas University of Specialisation. In actual fact, there are 41 Australian universities, one Australian university of specialisation, two overseas universities, one university college, and zero overseas universities of specialisation. In the other category—the one category for all other providers, which is simply called 'higher education providers' and which is sometimes referred to as 'non-university higher education providers'—there are 135. They vary in size and discipline from very small niche providers to large providers with breadth of offerings. Providers in this category include: not-for-profit providers, including semiautonomous government bodies; for-profit providers; TAFE providers, where they offer higher education qualifications; faith based colleges; providers that specialise in one field of education; and predominantly online providers. Across all of these six categories, in 2019, there were 1.5 million students. Close to 1.4 million of them were enrolled in universities.

The 2017-18 Commonwealth budget included a measure to undertake a review of the provider category standards to ensure that they support the Australian government goal for a diverse, high-quality higher education sector that meets the needs of students, employers, the sector and the wider community. In other words, the essential purpose of the review was to ensure that the names used to describe the variety of providers provided consumer protection to students and potential students, and the broader community. In October 2018, the Minister for Education appointed Professor Coaldrake to lead the review of the provider category standards. The Higher Education Standards Panel provided steering oversight. In December 2018, Professor Coaldrake released a discussion paper, and 67 public submissions were received. In October 2019, the Minister for Education released Professor Coaldrake's final report on the PCS review, and the Australian government released its response to the review in December 2019. In this response, the government accepted the aim of all 10 recommendations put forward by Professor Coaldrake and his committee.

The 10 recommendations contained in the PCS review aim to simplify the provider category standards by removing underutilised categories, providing differentiation, supporting provider innovation and aspiration, and maintaining Australia's reputation for world-class higher education. What is being done through this bill involves reducing the overall number of higher education categories from six to four by merging and rationalising the university related categories from five to two and increasing from one to two the number of categories related to those higher education providers which are not universities. The amendments to provider category standards are designed to drive more diversity in higher education, responding to evolving workforce skills needs and driving belter collaboration in our research efforts, and it is essential that we have this diversity.

It is also essential that we recognise the higher education sector has changed considerably in the last 20 years. Over the last 20 years, there's been almost a doubling of the amount of students of higher education in Australia, with an overwhelming majority of them studying at university. In 2000, fewer than 16 per cent of Australians aged 15 to 64 held at least a bachelor qualification. In 2018, that figure is more than 31 per cent. In 1988, when I was at university, there were only 400,000 domestic students at universities in Australia. Today, when my son is at university, there are now more than one million people studying at Australian universities. Yes, Australia's population increased in that time, but not to the extent that the rate of participation in higher education in Australia has.

I am happy to support these changes and this bill because they will set up a PCS framework that will be fit for purpose and helpful to the sector as it seeks to equip students and communities for a changing future.

10:56 am

Photo of Angus TaylorAngus Taylor (Hume, Liberal Party, Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all members for their contributions to this debate. The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020 will amend the TEQSA Act 2011 to facilitate implementation of the recommendations of Emeritus Professor Coaldrake AO's review of the higher education provider category standards. It also makes a number of other amendments to the TEQSA Act and the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to simplify the structure of the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015; guarantee higher education students will have future access to their student records, even if their institution ceases to operate; protect use of the word 'university' in Australian internet domain names; and confirm that higher education providers can use Indigenous student assistance grants to assist prospective and existing Indigenous students. The bill demonstrates the government's commitment to the needs of students, employers, higher education providers and the wider community through the creation of higher education standards that support a diverse, high-quality education sector and underpin the reputation and quality of our world-leading universities.

Following further consultation with the domain name administrator for the domain space since the bill was introduced, the government will introduce an amendment to replace item 29 in the bill with a new version. This amendment is designed to better align some technical aspects of the provision to the highly automated process the domain administrator uses to manage domain name applications. While the application and approval process will remain exactly the same, the new version of item 29 will ensure the administrator can't technically breach the law if a domain name licence is issued through an automated process before the applicant has sought the minister's consent to include the word 'university' in the domain name.

I would like to thank the Scrutiny of Bills Committee for its consideration of the bill and of the Minister for Education's response to its questions. I also thank the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for its deliberation. I commend the bill.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Moreton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.