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Finance and Public Administration References Committee - 29/06/2015 - Commonwealth Indigenous Advancement Strategy tendering processes

BUCKSKIN, Professor Peter, Chair, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium

LANSDOWN, Ms Anne-Marie, Deputy Chief Executive, Universities Australia

ROSE, Professor Mark, Member, Universities Australia

WARBURTON, Mr Mark, Principal Analyst, Universities Australia

[10:26]

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. I invite you to make a short opening statement and, at the conclusion of your remarks, we will invite committee members to ask you questions.

Ms Lansdown : We thank you for inviting us to elaborate on our submission to the inquiry into the Commonwealth Indigenous Advancement Strategy tendering process and we look forward to a productive discussion this morning. I do not propose to go over our submission to the committee in detail. It was critical of the process for its poor communication, lack of consultation, opaque program guidelines and unrealistic time lines. But that is now history and we are most concerned about the best way to improve Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander achievement in higher education in the future. How Universities Australia might best contribute to this objective is a matter which is currently being considered actively by the Universities Australia board.

To help support this committee to consider the matter, we have brought along two experts from the sector who command the respect of their peers in the universities: Professor Peter Buckskin from the University of South Australia, who is also the chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, NATSIHEC; and Professor Mark Rose from La Trobe University, who was also the council chair at Batchelor Institute in Darwin. They do not have official positions within Universities Australia, but we value their advice and envisage working very closely with them into the future, even more so given that the minister has announced that the tenure of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Advisory Council, ATSIHEAC, will end on 30 June 2015 and be replaced by engagement with key stakeholders, including Universities Australia and the consortium. You will be aware that NATSIHEC itself has made an independent submission to the inquiry reflecting the concerns of its membership, which includes senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and professional staff members.

Universities Australia is not a tendering organisation for IAS funding; however, most of its member universities are. Universities Australia accepts that Indigenous specific funding programs can be improved. This is a point well made in the final report of the 2012 review of higher education access and outcomes, generally called the Behrendt review. The new government's machinery-of-government changes in 2013 occurred while the sector was actively considering how best to implement the recommendations of that review. We are still waiting to see ATSIHEAC's advice to the Minister Education and Training on this matter.

The announcement that three Indigenous-specific programs would be merged into the Indigenous Advancement Strategy further complicated the picture and, combined with the deficiencies in the resulting tender round, has resulted in confusion and concern about the strategic direction for the sector in playing its part in closing the gap. I do not think anybody in the sector wishes to lose the good work that has come out of the Behrendt review. We wish to build on that, but it will need a unity of purpose and stable, flexible funding arrangements if it is to deliver parity in outcomes. Consequently, UA's submission to the inquiry recommended for things: that the government's strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement incorporate an objective to lift the level of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander attainment in higher education; that this objective be supported by long-term policy stability and action-oriented programs with measurable outcomes; that funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education programs be secure and allocated according to simple and transparent formulae; and that both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education program funding and policy development be the responsibility of a single agency with the relevant expertise in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education policy and program delivery. Thank you.

Senator McLUCAS: Thanks so much for your submission and for appearing today. I would like to get down to what is happening on the ground. I understand that the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme is the program that is most affected by the move to IAS. Am I right to say that?

Prof. Buckskin : Yes. There are a number of programs that were transferred into the IAS, including the Indigenous Support Program, which was about $40 million per annum; Away from Base, which was a mixed-mode delivery, was demand driven and was around $27 million; Commonwealth Scholarships for students—that was about $165 million; and Indigenous Staff Scholarships, around $0.2 million. ITAS is the only one—

Senator McLUCAS: But all of those were not transferred into IAS, were they?

Prof. Buckskin : They are quarantined at the moment, but the program has moved there. They are only talking to us at the moment regarding ITAS funding. But all those suites of programs have been shifted into the IAS out of Education.

Senator McLUCAS: Including the Commonwealth Scholarships program? That has gone to PM&C?

Prof. Buckskin : It was an Indigenous scholarships program. It is part of the suite of programs that were put together when the Aboriginal education policy was announced, way back in '93. These underpinned the activity in higher education. We unpacked that from that over-auspicing policy and moved into a new policy arrangement around the IAS.

Senator McLUCAS: Thanks. It is bigger than I thought.

Prof. Buckskin : For us in NATSIHEC, it is more of a concern that you are moving a suite of programs that were all via the mainstream department of education, which had responsibility for higher education policy, where the Aboriginal community had been talking to education ministers to get the mainstream responsible for doing the lifting in this space and not relying on Aboriginal funding alone. This is not a lot of money, in my view, but it helps drive the investment strategies of the main game in terms of higher education funding, schools funding, curriculum funding and support for Indigenous students funding. It is complementary.

Senator McLUCAS: But this move has undermined that driving of responsibility into the mainstream.

Prof. Buckskin : That is our view, yes. We were not consulted on this transfer of programs and functions, and we still are yet to have a really clear clarification on what might happen beyond 2015 with this other suite of programs.

Senator McLUCAS: Did this happen through machinery-of-government changes following the election or was it part of the IAS process? When did those programs move into PM&C?

Mr Warburton : Machinery of government.

Senator McLUCAS: Then we have the IAS process that says that children and schooling is the stream that you will have to apply through. Am I right in my chronology here?

Prof. Buckskin : Yes.

Senator McLUCAS: And that is when you realised that things that had been funded on an almost ongoing basis—

Prof. Buckskin : Because staff follow function, as you know, in machinery-of-government changes. So, the staff that managed this suite of programs moved to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We were caught up in the review and moved to the new structural program of schools and school attendance.

Senator McLUCAS: In your submission, you talk about the fact that the Children and Schooling Program is very much focused on schools and does not seem to have its head around higher ed. Is that a reasonable observation?

Prof. Rose : That is correct, Senator. One of the problems, I think, is the fact that, in the government's three strategies—kids into schools, adults into jobs and safe communities—and then extrapolated to the five points, higher education was not there. We were invisible and mute in the whole process, and that delivers a grave concern to us who have worked in this sector for a very long time and whose sector is filled with our kids and our grandkids. So, it is not just an artificial sort of view of this; this is our families' lives, at the end of this. I cannot understand why higher education, which is a strategic tool for closing the gap, was ignored. It confuses me.

Senator McLUCAS: Do you think this is a value judgement? You may not want to answer. But do you think that this was just an oversight? What happened? How did they miss the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people go to uni?

Ms Lansdown : I do not think anybody could actually speculate about that, no—how they could not know.

Senator McLUCAS: You would have asked government, I would expect?

Prof. Buckskin : Yes.

Senator McLUCAS: What answers have you received?

Prof. Buckskin : It was machinery of government. These decisions have been made. We have been trying to talk to officials as they develop the guidelines—get ready for feedback so we fill them with some advice, give them some advice, but we have not had much consultation in terms of the way they have implemented this. The good thing at the moment is that this is quarantined because of, I think, the lack of decisions being made and the uncertainty that it brought to the higher education sector. It created uproar in the higher education centre, where we demanded to have meetings with the head of PM&C, we wanted to see the head of education and we wanted to see ministers, especially Minister Christopher Pyne, to point out what a retrograde step the transfer of these programs out of the education portfolio and into a generalised Aboriginal advancement strategy is when we believe—and the Behrendt review talks about this—these have made some major inroads into participation. When I was a kid studying, there were less than 200, I would say, people studying in higher ed. Now there are over 10,000, and it is as a result of the strategic nature of these projects that enable universities to become more culturally responsive in terms of how they are delivering access and scholarship and research within the mainstream parts of the university.

Senator McLUCAS: I have other questions. I will come back to the tutorials if we get time.

Senator BERNARDI: Professor Buckskin, in that response and other responses from you and Professor Rose, you have talked in terms of 'we', but you are not part of Universities Australia. So are you speaking on behalf of your individual—

Prof. Buckskin : The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium.

Senator BERNARDI: Okay—which is not part of Universities Australia.

Prof. Buckskin : No.

Senator BERNARDI: We are here to get evidence from Universities Australia. I want to know what is going on.

Ms Lansdown : These gentlemen represent universities as well as—

Prof. Rose : Yes, we worked out—

Senator BERNARDI: Yes, but—

CHAIR: Ms Lansdown did explain that at the beginning.

Ms Lansdown : Yes. It is not unusual for Universities Australia to bring experts in the field who represent their members to appear before Senate committees.

Senator BERNARDI: Okay. I want to go back to Universities Australia. Who does Universities Australia represent?

Ms Lansdown : The 39 public universities.

Senator BERNARDI: All public universities?

Ms Lansdown : Yes—and Bond.

Senator BERNARDI: Okay. What influence does Universities Australia have on Indigenous programs and outcomes in individual organisations?

Ms Lansdown : Obviously this is will an area in which we have serious interest. Lately we have decided that we need to increase interest in these policies because of a range of events which have happened in the last two years. In Universities Australia the board is considering whether we need to include, for example, the deputy vice-chancellors or project-vice chancellors, who represent Indigenous interests in our mainstream committees. Specifically, our deputy vice-chancellor academic committee looks after Indigenous policy issues, so they are discussed on a regular basis at DVCA meetings.

Senator BERNARDI: So what influence is there?

Ms Lansdown : Universities Australia talks to the government on a regular basis and so we can channel the views of specific committees and universities into the policy debate.

Senator BERNARDI: Have you done that previously?

Ms Lansdown : We have, on many issues.

Senator BERNARDI: You are not then complaining about the consultation with government, the ability to contribute through government?

Ms Lansdown : We are not complaining about the consultation with UA; we are complaining about the consultation with our members.

Senator BERNARDI: But do you not represent your members and their interests through your various committees and when you are speaking to government it is an expectation that you are speaking on behalf of your members and your constituents?

Ms Lansdown : Yes.

Senator BERNARDI: So if they are consulting with you—

Ms Lansdown : They did not consult with us.

Senator BERNARDI: You just said that you had input into government and that is the consultation.

Ms Lansdown : We have input to government on many things. We were not asked about the design of the Indigenous programs. We did not know what was happening.

Senator BERNARDI: But you have regular opportunities to contribute into the government space. So I have asked you what Universities Australia is doing to influence Indigenous education through universities and you have told me that you have made contributions to government quite regularly.

Ms Lansdown : We have in the past. This has been a very short time frame, as you will appreciate. We had no information whatsoever distributed to us about what was happening in the redesign of the Indigenous programs.

Senator BERNARDI: Do have records of the number of Indigenous students enrolled in undergraduate degrees at universities?

Ms Lansdown : The most recent numbers, I think, are 2013 and the numbers are almost 13,000 students.

Senator BERNARDI: Do you know how many completions?

Ms Lansdown : I cannot tell you off the top of my head. I could find out.

Senator BERNARDI: If you would not mind, I would be interested in that.

Ms Lansdown : We can get those figures.

Mr Warburton : We could get access to that information. We do not have everything to hand but we can certainly access it.

Senator BERNARDI: No. I am just curious. I would be interested, if it is possible, to know the number of Indigenous students at each of the 39 universities.

Ms Lansdown : Broken down by each university?

Senator BERNARDI: Is it possible?

Ms Lansdown : That may take a little longer because we would have to go back—

Mr Warburton : It is possible. We would rely on the statistical resources of the Department of Education—they are good, we access those, that information is available.

Senator BERNARDI: I can get that from the Department of Education, but am interested in those enrolled and then completions.

Mr Warburton : We can get you that information.

Senator BERNARDI: That would be great. I would appreciate that. I understand there is an Indigenous tutorial assistance program, is that correct?

Ms Lansdown : Yes.

Senator BERNARDI: Have there been any cuts or changes to that?

Mr Warburton : That program has been in place for quite some time. Universities are pretty well what they were—as I understand, there was a basis for calculating the funds available to universities. There were issues about how flexible the program was and it was often the case that universities did not spend all the funds allocated to them. The Behrendt review identified that there were problems with the program and had proposed making the scheme more flexible. We do not have an absolutely firm handle on the outcome of the Indigenous assistance funding round. My understanding is that the allocations given to universities tend to reflect what they spent in the past rather than previous allocations. This was another case where work was going on in the sector to improve programs coming out of the Behrendt review and then the machinery of government changed and the Indigenous assistance scheme cut across that work, which was part of the confusion created in the sector.

Senator BERNARDI: Mr Warburton, you said that universities tended not to spend all the money that was made available to them under ITAS.

Mr Warburton : Correct. The reason given for that was the inflexibility of some of the guidelines for that program in the past. That was one of the things that the Behrendt review had recommended be worked on.

Senator BERNARDI: What happened to the funds that were not spent—were they returned to government or retained by the university?

Ms Lansdown : My understanding is they were returned to government.

Senator BERNARDI: Or they never found their way—

Prof. Rose : They are often returned. They are taken off the next year's allotment, but they are essentially returned, yes.

Senator BERNARDI: I understand. Are students, particularly Indigenous students, going to see different levels of service from universities in 2015-16 compared to recent years?

Prof. Buckskin : ITAS is formula driven but it is not compulsory, so it is up to the student. If a student has a requirement for tuition—and it might be in statistics or certain parts of professional writing when it comes to a business or engineering degree—they will enter into an agreement to have a tutor and the university will facilitate that. The unspent money comes about because not every student applies for tuition because not every student needs it. You cannot spend ITAS on people wanting to do postgraduate degrees. That was a big complaint. We have 100 and something graduates and PhDs. To receive some parity in the area we would probably need another 600 per cent of people meeting that target—hundreds more. When people are moving into honours and postgraduate study, they might need further tutorial assistance but ITAS cannot be used for that. It is only for undergraduate programs. That is one of the things that Behrendt talked about—getting universities to talk about how it could use that for higher education and higher degrees inside the sector.

Senator BERNARDI: To get more flexibility the universities themselves are talking about it—the tutors and the individual institutions. You are then reflecting that to Universities Australia. Is that how it works?

Prof. Buckskin : We have engaged with the bureaucrats within Universities Australia looking for advocacy. We work in universities. Many of our members were concerned about the lack of consultation, the lack of clarity about what might happen to ITAS and the lack of transparency around the Indigenous support program and the scholarships program. It was a really big concern. We could not get clear advice from the Department of Education, who have managed these projects since the beginning of time when they were established under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy as program responses to that particular review and the strategy to increase the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taking up higher education. That rang alarm bells for us. So some of us individually tried to get access to ministers before the IAS was formulated. When it was rumoured this machinery-of-government change was going to happen and education funding was going to be a part of this we were concerned because we have worked really hard on trying to get the mainstream, as I said, to also invest its money and use this complementary money to accelerate a more culturally responsive way of providing tutorial services to Indigenous students and delivering our courses on-site and off-site in communities, so away from base. There are number of scholarships that we want to provide to people based on indigeneity and based where they are—remote, rural—and then staff scholarships where we were looking at increasing the number of postgraduates to be in universities today such as people with a PhD to move beyond the level A, academic. We see these things as being really essential to grow our own and the capacity of Indigenous scholars and academics within the academy.

Prof. Rose : You have got to put into perspective that our people have only been able to go to university for the last four decades. The concerted effort started after the AEP. We are not only dealing with first in family—and that is a term that is a bit tortured, because I understand the majority of VCEs in Victoria are first in family to go to university. We have to undo that transgenerational ability to get our kids and our families, who have had negative experience in schooling systems, to engage. It is a leap for many of them.

Senator BERNARDI: It is a leap, and a leap that many governments have struggled with the best way in which to do it.

Prof. Rose : But we need everything going for us.

Senator BERNARDI: I just want to come back to this for a moment, I am sorry—I want to conclude on this, Chair. I am worried about the lack of consultation that universities have told us about. Professor Buckskin, you mentioned that you had heard about the IAS and some changes there, and that individual universities had sought meetings with ministers and consultation input into the process. Is that correct?

Prof. Buckskin : Yes.

Senator BERNARDI: What I am trying to get my head around is why the universities, having heard this, did not go to Universities Australia and say, 'Hey. This is what we hear is going on' and then get the single unified lobby group or representative organisation to go in on behalf of all 39 institutions.

Witnesses interjecting—

CHAIR: Hansard cannot pick up everybody talking at once.

Ms Lansdown : Firstly, I would say it is not unusual at all for members of individual universities to meet ministers and members of parliament—it happens all the time. We are not the only voice of the universities speaking to members of parliament. Of course we actively encourage that; there is no problem with that.

I think this was a layered problem. I think people were not quite sure what the machinery-of-government changes would mean. Then they heard: 'Oh well. These things are going there.' Then it was not clear which programs would be put where and whether programs would be quarantined. There was a whole lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what was happening.

It is hard to advocate if you do not know what the issue is exactly, but that is why we are here. We think we now well understand the issue and that is why we put in a submission on behalf of the members and why we are here to talk about what we think has happened but to contribute to the debate going forward. I think that is all we can say in terms of—

Senator BERNARDI: Ms Lansdown, the chair has told me I am done, so I am done.

CHAIR: The submission that you provided—what is the process? Is that signed off by the executive of Universities Australia or the member groups?

Ms Lansdown : The CEO, but all these submissions, if they are important submissions—and this is an important submission—are cleared by the board. The board represents all the member universities. It can be taken as a consolidated view from the sector.

CHAIR: How have the concerns that have been raised through your individual member universities or as a group been responded to—whether it be in the education ministry or PM&C?

Ms Lansdown : Obviously, the collective concerns only became really obvious to us towards the end of the process and as we came up to the submission process. But we, as UA, have also had meetings with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Education, and they have been quite constructive meetings about what we might do going forward.

Our view is what has happened has happened. We have learnt some things from that and we need to work really closely with them about what they do in the future.

CHAIR: In terms of the timing, some of your programs that have got continuation for this academic year—am I right to suggest there are some for 2016 or is it—

Ms Lansdown : My understanding is that some of the ITAS may have gone through to 2016.

Mr Warburton : I think it is fair to say that the sector does not have clarity about what happens next. So the position we put in the submission about where we are now is basically where we are now, and the sector is waiting to find out how these matters are going to be advanced in the future. We have quarantined funding for ITAS. The scholarships still exist, sort of externally. We have been told they are going into the IAS, but they still exist as a separate entity. The Indigenous Support Program exists separately. These things are funded through HESA not annual appropriations. As to what might happen next—whether they will continue to exist in that form or be reformed—I think it is fair to say: we do not actually know.

CHAIR: Are there any formal engagement channels available to you, through either your standing arrangements or specifically on the machinery of government changes that have pulled together all these programs?

Ms Lansdown : Professor Barney Glover, who is the chair of UA's board, received a letter from PM&C last week indicating the review that was referred to in the previous session—

CHAIR: It is a shame the committee has not received the same letter! Anyway, we might take that up later.

Ms Lansdown : and that said that consultation would take place between July and early September. It will review the IAS guidelines, including program descriptions, types of activities and services, eligibility, selection processes and funding round processes, communication, application, submission—all the things that you might hope you would be able to consult on. So that is—

CHAIR: It is a bit like our terms of reference.

Senator MOORE: So that went to the chair of UA—

Ms Lansdown : Last week.

Senator MOORE: this formal advice that this review was happening and wanting you to engage?

Ms Lansdown : Yes, absolutely. So I do not think it had information about a process for that engagement; it just notified that it was occurring and that the result of that would be reflected on the department's website in new guidelines in the last quarter of 2015.

Senator MOORE: You said in your opening statement that the council, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Advisory Council—I have no idea how you pronounce that as an acronym! I actually say 'council'—is going to be replaced.

Ms Lansdown : It has been disestablished, but they do have a report, which I gather is near being finalised, which will go to the Minister for Education, making recommendations about what should happen.

Senator MOORE: And that was the report that was put in place after the Behrendt inquiry, which looked at all of the stuff around this very important area. The Behrendt inquiry was the one that everyone was waiting for and it came out and then the recommendations went to the council to look at what was happening in this space overall.

Mr Warburton : It was to make recommendations about how the Behrendt inquiry recommendations should be implemented.

Senator MOORE: And that was supposed to be in the third quarter of 2015 as well, according to your application.

Ms Lansdown : That is right. Our expectation was that that would arrive in July.

Senator MOORE: So it could be that those two processes are being looked at at the same time—it could be, but we do not know.

Ms Lansdown : Possibly, although I would have to—

Prof. Buckskin : Sorry—that committee reports to Minister Pyne. I am a member of that. He is the one who has written to members of ATSIHEAC to say: 'This will cease on 30 June—

Senator MOORE: And thank you for—

Prof. Buckskin : and thank you for your contribution, and I will engage with a whole bunch of stakeholders,' of which ATSIHEAC, the group I chair, will be one, and it mentions Universities Australia as the other group, and others, which he did not name, in getting advice on Indigenous education in the higher education sector.

Senator MOORE: So ATSIHEAC may still exist?

Prof. Buckskin : No; that has gone.

Senator MOORE: That has gone?

Prof. Buckskin : He is going to consult with 'a range of stakeholders', and in this letter he mentioned two—

Senator MOORE: They had better get you quickly then, Professor!

Prof. Buckskin : That was me, as chair and as being a member, and Universities Australia. I am really pleased to be responding to Professor Glover's invitation to attend with them and present their views today. But we have been working with them on this for a number of months.

Senator MOORE: For months and months.

CHAIR: We are just coming up to 11 o'clock, so I will just put out a final call for questions.

Senator McLUCAS: In terms of the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme, your paper says that that is in place under current arrangements until the end of 2016. Is it true to say that you do not know what is going to happen after that?

Prof. Buckskin : Yes.

Senator McLUCAS: That is what I needed to understand. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing today and for your submission. The committee will take all of the issues you have raised into consideration and pursue some of them this afternoon. The committee will now suspend for morning tea and resume at 11.15 am.

Proceedings suspended from 11:00 to 11 : 15