Thursday, 18 February 2021
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; In Committee
I move Greens amendment (1) on sheet 1130:
(1) Schedule 1, item 15, page 7 (after line 15), after subsection 59A(4), insert:
(4A) A determination under subsection (4) must provide that, in having regard to the quality of the research undertaken by the entity or provider under subsection (1), TEQSA must:
(a) take into account a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors; and
(b) specify the factors taken into account for different discipline areas; and
(c) specify the benchmarks, including weightings, given to each specified factor.
(4B) Subsection (4A) does not limit subsection (4).
The metrics used to determine research quality shouldn't be left up to the minister and government agencies. They should be in the primary legislation. I disagree with the minister when the minister says they shouldn't be, because the Senate should be able to scrutinise the metrics that are being used to assess research. The standards to judge the quality of research must be fit for purpose, and they must be fair. They must take into account the diversity of research across and within disciplines and account for cross-disciplinary research. So these broader overall metrics must be included in the primary legislation.
This amendment really seeks to ensure that the higher education regulator, TEQSA, take a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors into account when they set the benchmarks for research quality. It is also to provide clarity on what those factors are. TEQSA would need to specify the factors taken into account for different discipline areas and specify the benchmarks. This amendment would make sure that they do that, and that should include weightings that are given to each specific factor. By including these requirements in the primary legislation, we can have greater confidence that the standards against which the research in universities is judged are appropriate, that these standards are fair and especially that these standards are transparently developed, which the Senate can make sure of today. The opposition have already indicated that they will support this amendment. I hope the crossbenches do as well. I commend the Greens amendment to the Senate.
The Labor Party supports this amendment. We need much greater transparency in decision-making by our regulator, TEQSA. In particular, we need to strengthen, not undermine, the research quality and the auditing of that research quality across institutions. TEQSA told the inquiry that it would be absolutely essential to take into account measures beyond the Excellence in Research for Australia methodology. Given TEQSA would be the organisation required to make judgements about that research and its national standing, they told us that it requires using approaches, metrics, indicators—both quantitative and qualitative—that sit outside the ERA processes. So this is, indeed, a grave concern when it comes to the kind of legislation that's being put forward today. We, along with the Greens and, I hope, the crossbench, are asking for transparency about the factors that TEQSA is looking at when making these decisions. It means that we need to see Australian institutions have the highest standards for Australian research, and it's difficult to see how those high standards will be maintained if the metrics that the regulator have available to them don't give the full picture. Australia will only be able to trade on its international reputation for good research that's supported by strong regulation for so long, until the metrics that we put forward are no longer trusted by institutions here in Australia, the Australian public and, indeed, internationally. This will affect the global standing of our research and, I would expect, in time, the quality of Australian research as well.
The failure of the government to acknowledge and understand these issues and ensure that TEQSA has the broadest array of information available to it, I have to say, is quite telling, particularly in the context of the other parts of this legislation that indicate which institutions are allowed to call themselves a university. Because, as we know, this Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill also allows colleges and institutes of higher education—higher education colleges—to now call themselves universities. In the Australian tradition, as is the tradition in many other countries, places are only called universities if they do both research and teaching. You can't be a university unless you do both teaching and research. So this bill is not only failing to put forward the sufficient standards around the assessment of research, such as quality and depth et cetera; it is also, at the same time, confusing the field around what a university looks like. Perhaps they think that the Australian public will be able to distinguish between an institute of higher education and a university, as we've done in the past, and they'll see an institute of higher education in the same way as they see a university college. But I don't think that that is the judgement that the Australian population will make. I think we are in danger, culturally, of adopting far more American norms around this, which, as yet, have not been part of our tradition here in Australia.
I have to say that it appears to me that the government, in putting this legislation forward—which, indeed, Labor has said that it supports, because there are some necessary things that need to happen—have gone in their own direction. The Coaldrake review, for example, said:
Along with teaching, the undertaking of research is, and should remain, a defining feature of what it means to be a university in Australia; a threshold benchmark of quality and quantity of research should be included in the Higher Education Provider Category Standards.
It should have its own distinctive provider category standards.
This threshold benchmark for research quality should be augmented over time.
The issue is: I don't think what this legislation provides for today gives TEQSA access to the adequate array of information to do that properly. The recommendation of Coaldrake, in fact, said that the Higher Education Standards Panel, in amending The Higher Education Standards Framework, put forward quite different benchmarks to those that are being pursued today.
The department claims that no university would be adversely affected, and that some would be affected. When you look at the assessment of this by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, they say:
Analysis of 2018 ERA data suggests that all public Australian universities would meet the proposed initial research quality benchmark requiring research at or above world-class standard that leads to the creation of new knowledge and original creative endeavour in at least three, or at least 30 per cent, of the broad fields of education they deliver …
I won't repeat the whole quote, but the department highlighted that it was 'arguable that some of Australia's smaller private universities' might not meet those standards 'if assessed on ERA ratings alone'. The department then goes on to say:
No university has indicated any concern or risk that they would not satisfy the benchmark. This is a testament to the already high quality of research in Australia.
The department is saying that no-one's got a problem meeting these thresholds, yet small institutions might struggle to meet that threshold. What does it say about the standards of quality for research that TEQSA will be prepared to support as a result of using those ERA ratings? The Labor Party and I don't believe that those ERA ratings are enough to make quality judgements about the quality of research going on in our institutions. We're concerned that the standards are so low that universities will meet them, given the time lag involved in this implementation and given the government has not spelt out any additional resources that would be available to TEQSA to put in higher quality assessments. It raises questions, for me and for the Labor Party, about the extent to which this government can, and should, be confident that the standards are sufficiently rigorous.
Before we vote on this amendment, I have a few questions to ask along these themes. I ask the minister: will extra resources be made available to TEQSA as part of the implementation of the responsibilities in this legislation?
Indeed they do already assess research, but this changes the framework and it also changes the kinds of institutions that will have to apply to TEQSA to have their research quality and teaching quality judged. If you're expecting more institutions to become universities using research, they also have to regulate institutions that become self-regulating. Currently, universities are self-regulating and higher education institutes are not. The playing field here is being changed in relation to who gets to be a university and who they are assessed by and how.
Do you expect the number of institutions that TEQSA is responsible for to change under this legislation? I wouldn't necessarily expect so, but I'm interested in hearing about self-accrediting institutions and how their regulation with TEQSA will change.
What was the government's response to Universities Australia when they said they would prefer the 'university college' category not to be used to describe things that don't include both teaching and research? Why is it that the government has made a decision to allow institutions that don't conduct research to use the word 'university' in their name?
The government has accepted the view of key stakeholders—and this is from the summing-up speech, for the information of the chamber—that retaining a category with the title 'university college' is important to both the reputation and the aspiration of high-quality independent higher education providers. A category of this name has been part of the Australian higher education sector since at least 1935, when New England University College was established, which became the University of New England. So, while it was not specifically recommended by the review, it is a reasonable and appropriate response to the review.
Okay, but you're now confirming that institutions that don't perform research will be able to use the word 'university' in their names when this legislation is implemented?
University colleges will be required to use both words: 'university' and 'college'. They won't be able to call themselves a 'university'. This will be an element of the threshold standards in the legislative instruments.
I'd like to go back to the questions I was asking before about TEQSA and its assessment of quality. We heard, in the Senate inquiry, concerns about how quality will be assessed by TEQSA, and so I'm keen to ask you, Minister: how will TEQSA go through the process of assessing quality, and how will they work with the sector and other stakeholders to develop new quality assessments?
I asked you, Minister, how they will work through the sector and other stakeholders to develop new quality assessments. Using the phrase 'it's the same as they do it now' doesn't actually explain to the Senate how they do it.
My advice is that TEQSA has committed to establishing a working group with the sector, to ensure that those processes are established in conjunction with the sector.
What consultation took place with institutions that do call themselves 'university colleges' but are not teaching institutions but residential colleges, and other colleges that are affiliated with universities and teaching institutions? How are you dealing with the confusion between an organisation like St Catherine's College, which is a residential college affiliated to UWA—they call themselves 'university colleges' because they're residential. Have you consulted with that sector as well?
They won't be using the term 'university college'; that is my advice. They are a different category and, in that context, there has been no specific discussion with that type of college.
I just want to clarify, Minister. You said that they won't be calling themselves 'university college'. Many residential halls do call themselves residential colleges, so I'm just seeking clarification.
That is not my advice. This is a specific category with respect to this legislation, so I suspect, in that sense, we have a difference of perspective here, or a difference of view.
Minister, the university colleges that are residential halls et cetera are not regulated by the regulator in terms of teaching or research. So, in that sense, they fall outside. But they're very much part of the university sector and the need to regulate the university sector. For example, university colleges and universities are regulated by TEQSA for issues like how, as an institution, they deal with sexual assault complaints on campus. University colleges are very much part of the regulation and those institutional arrangements. So I'm somewhat confused. I understand that they're not a provider category, but they are very much also regulated by TEQSA.
They are a residential college. They fall outside of this process. If they were to change their operations and seek to move into this space, they would then have to comply with the regulatory frameworks that apply under this legislation.
No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that, if they want to provide services that are regulated under this legislation, they will have to comply with the legislation.
That would be true of any institution that wanted to provide services under this. What if they already call themselves a university college and they provide some of those services, but they don't currently provide them to the standard required by this legislation?
If they want to provide these services, they will be required to meet the standard. If they're not providing services that are impacted by this legislation, then they won't be impacted.
There are many such institutions—for example, University College at the University of Melbourne, University of Canberra College and Canberra University College. Have you checked with them? They're affiliated with the universities. They're independent institutions. Have you consulted with them about whether they do in fact conduct any of the activities that will be regulated under this legislation?
I know, from my own experience in university colleges, that they can do things like tutoring and short courses—things that they will have a quality standard for. But, if they conduct teaching and they charge fees for people to come in and participate in that teaching—and it might be a whole range of different courses and support—but it's not historically part of the higher education standards, I'm unsure whether those courses will be required to meet the current standards of TEQSA.
I think I've actually quite clearly already answered that question, but I will say that residential colleges that are not subject to the TEQSA Act do not all use 'university college' in their name. For example, St Catherine's College doesn't call itself St Catherine's University College. But I think I've actually, in my previous answers, answered the questions that relate to this matter.
As the minister would know, Emeritus Professor Coaldrake was commissioned in October 2018 and reported in 2019 with a set of recommendations that go to some of the issues that the minister has been canvassing. Can you outline to the Senate what relationship recommendation 5 of the Coaldrake report has to the legislation?
In order to be helpful, Minister, I do have recommendation 5 in front of me. It says:
Along with teaching, the undertaking of research is, and should remain, a defining feature of what it means to be a university in Australia; a threshold benchmark of quality and quantity of research should be included in the Higher Education Provider Category Standards. This threshold benchmark for research quality should be augmented over time.
Universities Australia in their response and, I assume, in discussions with the government say that 30 per cent of a university's research should be at a world standard in the areas that they provide specialty in now in order to be properly regulated under the framework that this government is administering and that, in 2030, 50 per cent of research should be assessed as being at a world standard. Australia—despite the efforts in some parts and lack of effort in others, despite hostility in some other parts and lack of care, I suppose, despite that attitude from the federal government—does 2.6 per cent of the globe's research that is assessed as being at world-standard research level, despite us having 0.3 per cent of the world's population. Indeed, it's that research, over the course of the postwar period, that has led to the greatest advances in Australian agricultural production and Australian industry, the advances that have led to the greatest growth in Australian jobs and indeed good quality jobs. That's pretty important not just for the future of the university sector but for the government having a strong approach to regulating the proportion of world-standard research that each of our universities conduct. Can the minister advise the Senate what this legislation proposes to do in that regard?
That's a really important question. This legislation will enable the standards that you have just discussed, which have been drafted based on consultation with the sector, to be enacted. So this legislation will enable those standards that you have just been talking about and calling for to be enacted.
How will the passage of the bill assist with the assessment of the performance of universities against that standard? Who will be doing that work? How will that be reported through to the parliament? And what is the evidence in front of the government now about Australian universities' performance in terms of those benchmarks?
That assessment process will be undertaken by TEQSA, as we have discussed earlier in the debate. The legislation states:
TEQSA must have regard to the quality of the research undertaken by the entity or provider.
… … …
TEQSA may, in writing, determine matters relating to the quality of research for the purposes of this section—
of the act.
You outlined to Senator Pratt, in response to her questions, that the proposal is, as I think you've agreed, absolutely critical for the future viability and reputation of Australia's universities; absolutely critical for the development of Australian research and the future prosperity of Australians; absolutely vital for the future of Australian businesses that need good quality Australian research in order to develop products and develop equipment and to lift productivity; and absolutely vital to our agriculture sector in particular, where the level of public funding for Australian agricultural research has fallen through the floor not only under this government but under successive governments at the Commonwealth and state level, leading to long-term problems, a crisis in fact, in agricultural research in Australia. Despite the importance of that regulatory assurance work, is it really the case that the government proposes no additional resources for the oversight body to perform that important work?
I'm not sure that I completely agree with you with respect to what's been occurring within the agricultural research sector. Through its interactions with agriculture, particularly through the agricultural levy process, the government has continued to facilitate the investment of something in the order of $700 million plus in agricultural research on an annual basis. As I discussed in answer to a previous question, and this is something that we agree on, the number of institutions that are being subject to the oversight of TEQSA is not expected to change. On that basis, the government is maintaining the level of resourcing that is provided to TEQSA to undertake its work under the new regime.