Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 August 2021


Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading

1:03 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Senator Small made some Freudian slips in his remarks about the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021. He said that the Labor Party puts the tertiary institutions on a pedestal. He said that some of these organisations will have to face the burden, and then of course had to correct himself to say that the organisations will relieve the burden. He told you everything about the way in which this government approaches higher education. The Labor Party will oppose these bills, which go well beyond the question of funding. These bills raise questions beyond the mere questions of raising additional fees for registration. These are issues that are raised not just about the recovery of the cost of TEQSA.

TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, regulates higher education. In February this year the government passed the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020, a bill that provides additional powers for TEQSA to set those standards. I raised a number of concerns about those new powers and now, when we look at the measures that have been taken over the last two months, we can see why people have expressed concerns. TEQSA sets standards and has oversight of the minimum arrangements for higher education institutions that must be satisfied in this country. Whether they meet these standards determines whether they can call themselves a university in this country. If you change TEQSA, you can change the higher education system. This government is clearly intent on changing that system. The recent announcement by TEQSA suggests that this regulatory agency is taking its cue from the government. The government's intentions are evident from the composition of the Higher Education Standards Panel, which advises TEQSA. TEQSA's willingness to fall into line can be guessed at by its announcement last month elevating Avondale University College to the status of a university. I'll have more to say about that in a moment.

First, I want to look at the Higher Education Standards Panel. Membership of the panel matters because it determines how the standards in this country are interpreted. If you look at the members of the panel, a pattern emerges. They include Mr David Perry, the Vice-President Academic of Alphacrucis College; Ms Adrienne Nieuwenhuis, the Director of the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Australia; and Ms Kadi Taylor, the Head of Strategic Engagement and Government Relations at Navitas. Navitas, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a global company that operates several non-university higher education providers in Australia. Alphacrucis College in Sydney is another one of those non-university providers, although it aspires to having itself recognised as a university. Its vision statement on its website proclaims its goal to be 'a global Christian university, transforming neighbourhoods and nations'. So the membership of the standards panel now includes three representatives of private providers, a representative of the Australian Technology Network and a representative of the Regional Universities Network but no representative of Australia's most research-intensive universities—the Group of Eight.

I'm wondering how this relates to the government's intentions, which it says are to defend and advance research in Australia. How does this relate to the government's plans for TEQSA as set out in these bills? TEQSA's functions are guided by the 2015 higher education threshold standards framework and the provider category standards legislation, which was introduced last year in conjunction with the various cuts to university funding. These sought to define higher education standards in this country. The government claimed that the legislation, which was passed in February in the Senate, was based on recommendations of the review of the higher education provider category standards by Professor Peter Coaldrake, who is now the director of TEQSA.

The minister's recent statements, however, indicate that he is moving in a contrary direction to the government's own legislation. Under the new legislative criteria, from 1 January 2030, to be a registered Australian university a higher education institution must conduct research that leads to the creation of new knowledge in at least three—or 30 per cent—of the broad fields in which it delivers courses of study. It was pointed out at the time that some existing institutions might not meet that standard—the implication being that universities, defined as institutions conducting research, teaching and learning, and civic engagement, may no longer be recognised. The distinction between universities and private institutions—Alphacrucis College, for example—would begin to be blurred. It would be a creeping privatisation of the higher education system. That's where the minister seems to be headed not only with his appointment to the standards panel but also with his joint announcement with TEQSA on the creation of Avondale University College.

What do we know about Avondale? Avondale has expanded beyond its origins as a Seventh-day Adventist Bible college. Does it conduct sufficient high-quality research to justify its new status? I presume so, or why would Professor Coaldrake sign off on it?

The creation of a new university is a rare event, and the public is entitled to know more about TEQSA's reasons for its decisions. Avondale has not yet been through a round of assessment under the Excellence in Research for Australia; that's the metric that's applied by the Australian Research Council. According to its website, Avondale offers PhD and masters of philosophy degrees. Research specialisations are in education, arts, nursing, ministry and theology. This tells us that some research has been done but it doesn't tell us how much. Given the unease in this sector about long-term implications of change to provider standards, TEQSA should set out explicitly the reasons for granting Avondale university status. So I'm looking forward to Professor Coldrake's detailed answers as to how TEQSA reached its conclusions without undertaking a detailed ERA review, not only with regard to the breadth of the research being undertaken but with regard to its quality. Australia has not been overwhelmed with stories of Avondale's cutting-edge contributions to new knowledge yet its new status implies it is already operating at a level comparable to our universities.

The government is presiding over the unravelling of the system. This goes beyond any arguments about the merits of having specialised institutions such as research-only institutions or teaching-only institutions. While the government remains on its present path, we are likely to lose significant parts of the university system that we now have without gaining either excellence in research at universities or excellence in teaching at universities. This is all because of an ideological agenda to undermine a high-quality university system based on public provision.

The government has been wary of declaring its agenda explicitly, but the minister started to come clean in a speech to the Universities Australia conference in May. He acknowledged that the loss of international students during the pandemic had disrupted universities' revenues. He then went on to announce his priorities for higher education. He spoke about 'commercialisation' of research, he spoke about 'student experience' and he spoke about 'freedom of speech'. This government talks a lot about commercialising research without showing much understanding of how research actually operates.

If we don't invest in basic curiosity-driven research, there will be nothing to commercialise. This minister's reference to the 'student experience' was in a section in his speech that was, on the face of it, a call for a return to face-to-face learning on campuses. Face-to-face learning has taken a bit of a hit during the pandemic, for obvious reasons, but the minister's real motive in drawing attention to the experience of domestic students was to take another swipe at vice-chancellors, vice-chancellors who have reminded him there has been no permanent guaranteed funding for research, and there is a funding crisis created by the loss of international students. The universities were being told that no help will be forthcoming in the immediate crisis. The bills before us, which add to the cost burden, are another reminder. The bills will increase the funding crisis facing universities by making TEQSA rely on collecting fees for its activities.

Finally, we have the minister's comments on freedom of speech. The minister and his allies—the right-wing think tanks and culture warriors of the media—talk a lot about the supposed threat to freedom of speech on Australian campuses. This threat is confected, as the former Chief Justice Robert French found when he reviewed the matter. This has not deterred the minister from complaining that universities are too slow to implement policies to uphold free speech and academic freedom which are now a legal requirement yet he does not see the contradiction between this attitude and the way he allocates research grants. The Australian Research Council is being used to smear the reputations of highly reputable, highly decorated academics in this country. I will have more to say on that matter in another speech.

So far as this bill before us is concerned, we can see that this is obviously the wrong time to move towards full cost recovery for TEQSA. Mr Tudge conceded in his speech that higher education has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the pandemic. Now we have another blow to the sector.

The bills establish new charges for cost recovery for TEQSA's activity, and it's another move characteristic of this government. The amount and the means of paying the charges will be left to regulation. Transparency and accountability have been shunted aside yet again. When the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation Committee wrote to the minister asking why it's considered necessary to leave key aspects of the new charges to delegated legislation, he replied in a now-familiar manner. The charges, he said, were purely administrative in nature. That's not the view of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, of which I'm a member. Significant matters relating to collection and administration of new charges should be set down in primary legislation, and we can't see that that will happen.

What we have here is that the costs are being borne by the lowest-risk institutions: the large public universities, the same institutions that were hardest hit by the loss of international students. In 2020, universities lost $3 billion in revenue, and they had to lay off 17,000 staff. Higher revenue losses can be expected this year. Yet we've been told in debating these bills that we should be allowing full cost recovery for TEQSA. Some of these institutions are being asked for up to a 700 per cent increase in the cost recovery mechanisms being proposed by these bills. These are charges that do nothing to solve the real problems facing our universities. In fact, what we see with these measures is a government that is determined to make things worse. It is fundamentally a government that has no grasp of the real problems facing our tertiary sector and no solutions for how to deal with those problems.


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