Thursday, 18 February 2021
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020. This bill seeks to make changes to the TEQSA Act to implement recommendations of the provider category standards review undertaken by Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake. The bill will facilitate the overhaul of higher education provider categories and the standards to which higher education providers are held.
The government claims the main goals of the bill are to raise standards and simplify the processes for universities to follow in order to meet those standards. Other proposals in the bill to are to ensure prospective First Nations students are eligible for student assistance grants, give TEQSA the ability to regulate undergraduate certificates, make changes to provider registration, take control of student records when an institution shuts down and ban the inappropriate use of the word 'university' in domain names. While the Greens will be supporting this bill, we are concerned about some of the proposals from the government about what will be included in the eventual regulations provided for by the bill and about the government's continued use of framework bills to bypass parliamentary scrutiny.
There is a lack of clarity in the bill about factors TEQSA must consider when determining research quality and the extent of the powers delegated to the minister and TEQSA. We oppose the government's stated intention to use the title of 'university college' as a category for high-performing non-university higher education institutions in the forthcoming instrument. The extent of the delegation of decision-making power to TEQSA and the minister in this bill is not proportionate and neither is it appropriate. The standards by which we judge our universities and the research they produce should be scrutinised by the Senate. The Greens do not share the Education and Employment Legislation Committee's view that the extent of the delegation of decision-making power in the enabling legislation is proportionate or appropriate and agree with stakeholders who have expressed concerns about this.
While we acknowledge commitments from the department and TEQSA to consult with key stakeholders in the development of the regulations, we echo the comments of the Queensland University of Technology in their submission to the committee inquiry into this bill. They said:
… it is surely the Senate's prerogative to consider all sides of a complex argument and exercise its legislative authority, when a significant regulatory change is on the table that has the very real potential to be materially consequential to the management and perception of the Australian tertiary sector as a whole.
At the very least, the primary legislation should set clear guidelines for the establishment of threshold standards in the regulation to ensure appropriate parliamentary oversight and legislative boundaries.
The Greens share concerns expressed by the National Tertiary Education Union with respect to the lack of clarity in the primary legislation about how threshold benchmarks of research quality will be developed by TEQSA. At the moment, proposed benchmark standards appear to suggest that Excellence in Research for Australia outcomes will be used to determine quality. They don't say much else. I note that ERA is currently under review and that many academics and other stakeholders do have concerns about transparency in regard to the methodology used to assess outcomes, particularly in the humanities, arts and social sciences. At a time when the humanities are under sustained attack by this government, it is particularly important to ensure the standards used to judge the quality of HASS research are fair and can properly evaluate cross-disciplinary research. I acknowledge TEQSA's assurances that a matrix other than ERA outcomes will be used to determine quality; however, this commitment should be included in the primary legislation, rather than being left to the discretion of the minister and the government agencies. I will move an amendment in the committee stage to ensure that that can happen and to make sure that, in developing the regulations determining the quality of research, we can actually include that. TEQSA must take into account a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors and specify what they are and why they have been chosen.
As the committee report identifies, many submissions and witnesses were opposed to the government's proposed use of the category title 'university college' for high-performing, non-university higher education providers. I share those widely held concerns that using the term 'university college' risks inaccurately redefining what it is to be a university. It is inconsistent to hold that the conduct of research or a certain quality and quantity of research are fundamental features of a university and yet to also enable providers which are not research active to brand themselves with the word 'university'. Recommendation 9 of the provider category standards review begins with the statement:
The essential purpose of regulating the nomenclature of institutions via the Higher Education Provider Category Standards is consumer protection.
It is entirely foreseeable that a university college category could cause confusion amongst prospective students about the standing of a given institution.
The government has not provided a policy rationale for discarding the clear recommendation of the PCS review to title the category 'national institute of higher education'. The prior existence of an 'Australian university college' category isn't a persuasive reason to allow institutions which do not conduct research to refer to themselves using any variation of the word 'university'. Likewise, we do not consider the desire of non-university higher education providers, many of whom operate for private profit, to brand themselves as university colleges. A particularly compelling reason is that it would risk confusion among students and the public and a decline in the perception of university quality. In drafting the instrument, the government should implement the original recommendation of the Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards to title the non-university category of high-performing higher education institution as 'national institute of higher education'. I will move a second reading amendment to this effect.
At the recent Senate inquiry into this bill, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium spoke to the goal of a future First Nations university in Australia. They brought to the fore the importance of Indigenous representation in the determination of research standards. They spoke of the need to consider First Nations research and scholarship against appropriate standards which take into account Indigenous knowledge and are aligned with benchmarks of global Indigenous research. Professor Steven Larkin, CEO of the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, noted:
There has been a history of telling us that research has been quality and having impacts and outcomes that haven't aligned with necessarily our world view or our priorities.
He went on to say:
The analytical framework—
of research assessment—
tends a lot of the time to be Westernised or orientated. It is almost a subtle form of assimilation in an intellectual space.
Our systems of assessing research quality must ensure that the unique position of First Nations research and scholarship be included in the setting of benchmark standards and that First Nations voices are prominent in the determination of the standards used to assess Indigenous research.
I'll also note the NTEU's advice that the Senate be wary of the potential impact of the increasing focus on short courses and microcredentials on the higher education landscape. We need to be vigilant about the creeping privatisation and deregulation of the university sector and continue to fight for universities as places of public good. Indeed, the Liberals' willingness to throw money at short courses through the budget and JobMaker programs without corresponding funding for meaningful, long-term qualifications tells us everything we need to know about the fragmented, profit-driven future they see for Australian post-secondary education. It is an appalling future that we must resist.
The Greens value high-quality research. It is appropriate to expect high standards of our universities and the research that they produce. The conduct of high-quality research is fundamental to universities, and we should never allow that core aspect of our university system to be devalued or decoupled from teaching.
The Morrison government's cuts to university funding will reverberate through the university sector for years, if not decades. This is a sector already reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and decades of austerity. The paltry amount of new funding for research in the 2020-21 budget will not go anywhere near to covering the funding shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and years of funding cuts.
To guarantee the future of high-quality research in Australia, it is essential that our public universities are well resourced by the government. University staff should enjoy secure work and good conditions. Social, economic and institutional barriers to diversity and inclusion in university education and the field of academia itself should be knocked down. Our public universities must be fee-free, they must be well funded democratic places of excellence in teaching and research. I move:
At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that:
(i) there is widespread opposition to the Government's proposed use of the category title 'University College' for non-university high-performing higher education providers, and
(ii) the Government has not provided sufficient policy rationale for discarding the clear recommendation of the Provider Category Standards (PCS) Review to title the category 'National Institute of Higher Education'; and
(b) calls on the Government to implement the original recommendation of the PCS Review to adopt the title 'National Institute of Higher Education' for the category of non-university high-performing higher education institutions when drafting the instrument giving effect to its changes to provider categories"