Senate debates

Monday, 9 August 2021


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

9:07 pm

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

I thank the minister for her outline. I'm a member of the committee that she spoke of, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. I think she's probably been a little generous in her interpretation of the committee's response. The nature of this committee is that it is concerned—and had repeatedly expressed its concern—at the growing amount of legislation that now contains material that effectively allows the detail of policy questions to be left to subordinate legislation by way of these regulations. That was the thrust of the correspondence to the minister and the reason the questions were asked as to why these matters can't be contained in the primary legislation, to which the minister has responded, as is so often the case, that this is just an administrative matter and doesn't require a substantive amendment to the legislation.

The committee has thanked the minister for his response because there has been some movement in the government's position—namely, to adjust the explanatory memorandum to explain the circumstances. But that's not to say that the committee is satisfied with the minister's response. The Labor Party is opposing this legislation, and we'll express our disappointment in the government's position in that vote. But it should not in any way be put to the Senate that the position that's been outlined is an acceptance of the government's position. When the committee says, 'We'll draw these matters to the attention of the Senate and leave it to the Senate to make a judgement call on it,' that's simply a mechanism by which the committee says, 'We're not happy with what's happened, but we acknowledge that there has been some movement by the government.' But it's not satisfactory because these are questions that should have been answered in the primary legislation, and it should have outlined clear guidance on the mechanism by which exemptions will be raised in the future for the direction to policy officers in the department as to the way in which they administer this legislation. It's just not good enough to say, 'Look, we need the flexibility because we don't know what's going to happen in the future'—that's an age-old excuse within the Commonwealth Public Service these days—and to take away the responsibility of the parliament to make decisions about what is appropriate and what is not, particularly on policy questions.

I've raised particular concerns about the way TEQSA is functioning at the moment, especially in regard to standards. I've indicated that I intend to pursue this with some vigour at the next round of estimates. I think the way we are seeing a number of private colleges now being moved into the category of university requires furthers explanation. When we have a series of Bible colleges being promoted as universities, we're entitled to know under what circumstances those decisions have been made and against what criteria they have been made. This is the sort of thing that I think we're entitled to pursue, and we certainly will at estimates.

When it comes to the question of charges, this bill will contain increases in charges of up to 700 per cent for some categories. These are charges which will inevitably be passed on to students. There are two questions that concern me about this bill. It's not just the issue of fee recovery; it's the effect of the increased charges and the cost to students, given the way in which, inevitably, these charges will be passed on. My concern goes to the question of standards, particularly research standards, given that we passed legislation only in February that now seems to have led to circumstances where a series of private colleges have been shunted into the category of university in a manner which I think requires further explanation. So there are two questions: fee rises and standards, and the mechanisms by which they occur. For the minister to say, 'We've done the right thing; we've made a statement in regard to the explanatory memorandum,' doesn't go anywhere near far enough.

As I say, the Labor Party is opposing this legislation because this is a pretty ham-fisted way to do business. It reflects a very poor understanding of the way in which the education system actually operates. It demonstrates, in my judgement, a movement by this government by stealth to fundamentally change the way in which the higher education system in this country operates and to see circumstances where there's a considerable shift away from public provision towards what some vice-chancellors used to call Ma and Pa Kettle operations.

I see one of these colleges today, because of their financial circumstances, has moved to extend the vacation considerably to try to make up savings, forcing people to use up their various entitlements. They did so without consultation, without any engagement with their workforce, bringing into practice some measures which really do demonstrate a culture alien to the way in which the tertiary sector and the education sector in this country has traditionally operated.


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