Tuesday, 25 August 2020
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019; Second Reading
Once again I am proud to be part of the Morrison government and am pleased to speak on more unapologetically tough legislation. This time we're tackling cheats that exploit vulnerable students while undermining the integrity of Australia's high-quality degrees. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019 targets criminals who previously have escaped attention for crimes which target young, naive and vulnerable students. Cheating services are a blight on our education system. The individuals behind the so-called contract cheating services should never prosper from this behaviour. It now includes those who advertise via websites to complete assignments or sit exams for students willing to pay. It's just not fair to the students who put in the work and keep showing up. Under the Morrison government, if you sell a cheating service to an Australian student, you will face two years imprisonment or a fine of up to $100,000.
Importantly, this bill is aimed at commercial cheating services, not the students who use them. Students who cheat will still be subject to their institutions' own academic integrity policies and sanctions, including any consequences that flow from those, and after consulting with the sector we've clarified the legislation to ensure that parents and friends who might edit their child's or friend's essay or provide suggestions on how to improve an assignment will not be impacted. However, the national regulator will be given new powers to investigate and recommend the prosecution of cheating service providers. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—TEQSA—will also be empowered to seek court injunctions to force internet service providers and search engines to block cheating websites.
The bill amends the TEQSA Act to make it an offence to provide, arrange or advertise academic cheating services to students studying within Australian higher education providers. It applies whether the service is provided from within Australia or overseas. Criminal and civil penalties of up to two years jail and fines of up to 500 penalty units, or around $100,000, will apply where the cheating service or advertising is for a commercial purpose.
Civil penalties of up to 500 penalty units will apply where the cheating service is provided without remuneration. Strict liability will apply to the criminal offence of providing an academic cheating service in order to undermine services of disingenuous disclaimers regarding the purpose and use of their products. TEQSA will be appointed to enforce the new law with its powers to include monitoring, intelligence gathering, investigation and prosecution of identified offenders. TEQSA will have additional power to collect and disseminate information about cheating websites and their users, to help institutions combat cheating activity on campus but with safeguards to protect the unwarranted sharing of personal information about those who purchase cheating materials.
The bill is based on the advice of the Higher Education Standards Panel that legislation was required to deter third-party academic cheating services. The panel found that the array of state, territory and Commonwealth laws relevant to cheating offences made it difficult to pursue legal cases against cheating service providers. The advice was that additional legislative backing was needed to more effectively deal with such risks. It was recommended that legislation be aimed at those who provide cheating services and not at the students who might use such services. This year the government took into account some 47 submissions regarding the legislation, which were generally supportive but pointed at ways to improve aspects of the bill. We listened and we modified the bill accordingly.
So why is the bill necessary? Australian and international university students are under more pressure than ever before to succeed. The pandemic and the fast-evolving digital business world mean that there is more competition than ever when it comes to applying for jobs. Qualifications could mean the difference between winning a role or not. Recently, our government has moved to ensure that first-year students who fail more than half their subjects could lose their taxpayer funded HECS support. This is a sensible move because it requires students to achieve goals as they progress. Ultimately, it will save the taxpayer millions and will ensure that students that drop out of courses don't incur massive debts. While it's a sensible move that protects both students and taxpayers, it does increase the pressure on students to achieve academic passes in their first year. Cheating services know this and they exploit both local and international students with this information.
This bill is more proof that the Morrison government wants higher education to be accessible and sustainable for all Australians. We continue to look for ways to protect this important sector. In 2020 our government invested $18.2 billion in higher education. Next financial year, the investment will be $18.8 billion, and by 2022 higher education will receive more than $19 billion. From 2009 to 2017, Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding increased by 71 per cent, which is significantly faster growth than the economy experienced. This year around $15.2 billion will be provided specifically for higher education teaching and learning. $64 billion will be provided over the next four years for teaching and learning, including $30 billion for the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, $29 billion for the Higher Education Loan Program and $4 billion for other teaching. In 2019-20 around $9.6 billion in Commonwealth funding is being provided for research and development across all portfolios. This $12.4 billion will be invested over the next four years through the education portfolio alone, including $8 billion through block grants, $3.3 billion in funding provided through the Australian Research Council and $1.1 billion through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, as part of the total NCRIS investment of $2.2 billion through to 2028-29.
Our government hasn't turned its back on higher education during the pandemic either. The Higher Education Relief Package guarantees Commonwealth Grant Scheme payments for providers. It offers regulatory relief and cost-recovery fee relief, with around $7.4 million in future and already collected TEQSA fees. The outcome of our investment means that education providers can offer discounted six-month online courses in fields of national priority. As at 10 August, there are 392 courses across 55 providers in eight fields, including health, education and IT.
The result of all of this investment in higher education is that our Australian universities are still in good shape. In 2018 universities reported total revenue of $33.7 billion with a net result after expenses of nearly $1.5 billion. They have net assets of $59.1 billion, including cash reserves of $4.4 billion and total cash and investments of $20.3 billion. In 2018, total Australian government funding amounted to $17.6 billion—or 52 per cent of total revenue. International student fees contributed a further $8.8 billion, or 26 per cent of revenue.
Our government has worked hard to minimise university job losses. Universities are eligible for JobKeeper if they meet the required decline in revenue in line with the criteria for other businesses. However, a six-month revenue test is applied to universities to ensure a fair comparison between semester based revenue periods. The Morrison government has invested heavily in this sector, both financially and with new legislation that protects students and our universities from the scourge of cheaters. I am proud once again to be speaking on groundbreaking legislation that targets those lawbreakers, who will no longer have free rein to exploit our universities and their students.
I rise to make a few short comments—which I expect will take us up to question time—in relation to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Bill 2019. I just want to provide in my contribution a bit more analysis with respect to the core issue which this legislation is seeking to address, and that is the corrosive nature of cheating. I want to talk about it from the perspective of five different stakeholders: firstly, the students themselves.
The provision of these contract cheating services and the temptation for these students to engage and procure contract cheating services leads them, potentially, to a slippery road which involves the corrosion of character. It is absolutely crucial that all of our institutions across all parts of our society support integrity and ensure the integrity of our processes and procedures. The student who cheats in an assignment today is potentially the professional or worker of the future who is going to cut corners and compromise on issues, to the detriment of their community.
It also actually deprives the student of that great opportunity to look at a subject which they're having trouble handling—maybe it wasn't their specialist subject—and work hard on that subject; to take the hard and more difficult road of becoming talented in that subject and being able to pass that subject with proficiency. It actually deprives the student of that opportunity. It also deprives fellow students who don't engage in cheating with respect to the opportunity to get full recognition of their achievements. It impugns the students who choose not to take advantage of contract cheating services and the integrity of their results if their fellow students engage those services. It also attacks the integrity of academia, including tutors, who invest so much substantial effort and some of whom became mentors to many of us who are serving in the Senate today. It detracts from their efforts. It undermines the reputation of the universities themselves, their standing in society and on the international stage. That is a bad thing.
But, more than anything else, cheating—be it in universities, high schools, sport or any other endeavour—is a corrosive behaviour which undermines the entirety of a society. In my earlier life I worked for a mining company which worked in South-East Asia and many other parts of the world. We had to grapple with the issue of corruption. One of the lessons we always remembered was that it didn't matter how high the stake involved was, it didn't matter whether or not it was a policeman seeking a 50-baht or something bribe to let you go through a roadblock and it didn't matter whether or not it was a senior government official; it was cheating, it was corruption and you could not tolerate it for a second, because once you compromised in any way with respect to those principles it had a corrosive impact on the organisation itself, on the institutions in the country and on the community: 'If they're doing, it why shouldn't I do it?'
The corrosive impact of cheating is addressed by this legislation. I'm happy to support this legislation and I commend it to the Senate.