Thursday, 18 February 2021
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill. I intend, unlike speakers before me, to actually speak about the particular subject of the bill and to really focus on what the Morrison government is intending through this bill, and what we'd like to see achieved to continually improve the university and education sector more generally.
This government is incredibly focused. Everything that this government, the Morrison Liberal government, does has one identifiable goal—that is, to make life better for Australians. Whether that be lowering the cost of living, making it easier to find a job, keeping Australians safe or supporting the country, as we're doing right now through this once-in-a-century pandemic, the Morrison government stands with and for Australians. That is why we are introducing this bill.
Working in concert with existing legislation, this amendment will future-proof Australia's higher education system, cut red tape and simplify regulation. This bill complements the other reforms to higher education undertaken by this government, including steps to ensure free speech is protected on campus and adjustments to fee structures to ensure that our universities are training Australians for jobs of the future—for jobs that actually exist and not just jobs that are in the never-never, aren't actually practical and aren't actually going to lead somewhere—jobs that exist and jobs that we're predicting will exist into the future. We are setting Australians up for the very best opportunities in their lives. The Morrison government wants to ensure that we support school leavers, international students and those looking to gain new skills or to re-skill through higher education in Australia.
Our education system is of course an extremely important pillar of our national economy. Pre COVID, it was one of our largest export industries, with hundreds of thousands of international students enrolled in Australian universities and an increasing number of Australian school leavers enrolling in courses to improve their employment prospects and their horizons. Over 50 per cent of Australians now hold some form of tertiary education, with over 30 per cent gaining their qualifications at university. Nothing is more important to Australia's future than a resilient and diverse economy, and our education sector is both a part of this economy and an enabler of economic diversification. Now, I'm a product of the vocational educational system. I didn't go to university; I completed a trade once I had finished school. I went to Midland College of TAFE and did my electronics servicing training there. Not having gone to university might put me in a minority in this place—
Senator Sterle interjecting—
Thank you, Senator Sterle. I'll take that. But its benefits certainly do not escape me, because in Australia we certainly bat way above our average. I point to the success in seeing the long history of many students, many people, going through university, and you can think about the research and the developments that have occurred as a result of a highly educated nation. But we owe it to future generations to make tertiary education efficient, robust and effective. This will not only benefit future generations who enrol in courses but answer our obligations to the broader tax-paying public who fund the system.
This bill will amend the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 to implement recommendations of the Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards. It will introduce a measure preserving the academic records of students whose higher education provider has ceased to exist. This is very important so there's portability of that record and that information. It will better recognise high-quality non-university providers. This is also an important reform in enabling specialised, boutique and unique providers to get the status so they are able to provide a quality education. Through this bill, we will formally recognise and include the new undergraduate certificate qualification type in the higher education system.
We'll be making a small number of other adjustments to the legislation intended to improve the regulation of Australia's higher education sector by strengthening the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency registry role. Also, through this bill, we will give effect to an outstanding recommendation from the report of the Review of the impact of the TEQSA Act on the higher education sector, referring to the threshold standards as a single, unified framework. We'll be replacing references to 'Indigenous students' with the term 'Indigenous persons' to provide clarity around the scope of Indigenous student assistance grants. This final change really is just a simple administrative change, referring to an existing definition that is already defined in the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. This definition is the standard legislative definition of 'Indigenous persons' used across the Commonwealth statute book, so it is a very minor change, but nonetheless important.
The government is confident that our universities will have little trouble in demonstrating the quality and significance of their research against the benchmarks laid out in the threshold standards. The government has ensured that research of national standing in fields specific to Australia is also considered within this benchmark. This will encourage research to and in the national interest and not unfairly penalise smaller, regional universities. Regional universities form integral parts of our regional economies, as they are, among other things, drawcards for younger people who are vital for flourishing local economies. It is of utmost importance that these smaller campuses are considered in any changes to higher education legislation. Having sat on the Senate committee that this legislation was referred to, I'm reassured that the government has undertaken this due diligence. We heard from the regional university sector, and their support of this bill was made very clear.
I had the privilege last year of visiting the Pilbara Universities Centre. In Western Australia, as Senator Sterle my colleague from Western Australia knows, our population is very much centred down in the south-west corner. Over 80 per cent of Western Australians live in the south-west corner. We have this enormous state that takes up more than a third of the continent and yet our population is centred in that bottom corner. So there is not the ability for communities, towns and cities around the state to establish a university in their own right, because we don't have the sort of scale you see in places in New South Wales and Queensland. But the Morrison government has backed the Pilbara Universities Centre, which is enabling multiple universities—not just Western Australian universities but universities from across the country—to offer courses there in a supported format, in Karratha. Karratha is quite a booming little city. It has city status now. It didn't about 15 years ago. It has grown and it has a great future, with enormous potential going forward. Almost a third of Australia's GDP comes from exports out of ports like Karratha. It's a thriving place. But the Pilbara Universities Centre, run by Susan Grylls, is just a fantastic example of where, through collaboration, through community-driven approaches, you can really see some big change. It's been running now for two years almost and it really is having a significant impact. This bill goes to supporting these kinds of initiatives, supporting regional universities, supporting regional education so that young people don't have to leave and go to their capital city or elsewhere and they can actually stay resident in their home towns, in their home regions, and, importantly, give back once they have finished their studies in that area.
Universities sometimes face difficulty in adhering to new standards, but these universities are going to be supported, because there is quite a long runway before any kind of enforcement action will be undertaken. There will be support provided to universities, but there is a 10-year runway to enable those universities to put in place the necessary procedures and standards. Then there will be enforcement action if standards haven't been met by that time. This is an extremely generous runway, ensuring that no abrupt changes to our research and education system can occur. I think that ought to provide an enormous amount of comfort to providers, in the understanding that the role of TEQSA is to be supportive and to help shape and guide. With that 10-year runway, there certainly shouldn't be any reason why an organisation couldn't adjust to meet these new standards.
The bill will facilitate important innovations that will enhance the design of the higher education system, fostering provider aspiration, increasing research quality and all the while increasing regulatory flexibility within the Australian higher education sector. These improvements are needed now more than ever for us to keep producing high-quality graduates and world-class research, even in times of global pandemic and economic turbulence. Perhaps now we will start to see a reduction in taxpayer funding of research of questionable benefit like, for example, the University of Sydney study to work out whether or not having colleagues chatting in an open-plan office creates a noise and affects productivity, which cost taxpayers $405,000. I'm pretty sure employers and businesses can figure this stuff out on their own. We don't need to be spending such large sums of taxpayers' money on these sorts of research projects. Hopefully we'll see, through this, some improvement in that regard.
Some will attack these amendments as moving the goalposts on universities, but it's simply not the case. These amendments simply clarify already existing requirements for taxpayer funded university research—that is, universities already have a requirement to demonstrate that they undertake research that leads to the creation of new knowledge and original creative endeavour. This requirement, however, is not currently defined, so these amendments will remedy this. Stakeholders have expressed strong support for the direction of these proposed clarifying changes, no doubt.
Finally, I want to assure Australians that there will be no change to their privacy with TEQSA collecting and holding their records. This change will, in fact, centralise the database for Australians to access their education records. It will mean Australians who attended now defunct institutions will still be able to access their transcripts. TEQSA will undertake a privacy impact assessment as part of its implementation of this measure, and it will ensure that this handling of personal information under the new provisions in the bill complies with the Privacy Act. I think that should provide good comfort to Australians wondering about this. You're not going to have a whole heap of different organisations holding different records. When an organisation is no longer operating, you won't be wondering whether you can still access a record. It will be stored in a central repository, which will have a big impact.
This comprehensive amendment to our higher education legislation will streamline and improve the sector. It's pivotal to our future economy. It is for that reason that I commend this bill to the Senate.