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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6623

Senator TROETH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (5:14 PM) — I say at the outset in my response to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002 debate that the reputation and quality of Australia's higher education system is of paramount importance to the government. With an annual contribution to our economy of more than $4 billion, the Australian education and training sector now generates more export income than wool and nearly as much as wheat.

The vital importance of this industry to Australia's economy is underscored by the increasing number of overseas students studying in Australia. There was a 16 per cent increase in the 2000 academic year alone, and even higher growth rates are expected in future years. About 58 per cent of all overseas students enrol in the higher education sector. Australia's teaching and research is world class and the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002 should ensure that, as the sector continues to grow, the quality assurance framework that underpins it is sufficiently robust to protect the quality of the sector. The bill will require institutions setting up in any of Australia's external territories to meet the same standards as those applying in our mainland states and territories.

By amending the Higher Education Funding Act 1998 to extend the national protocols for higher education approval processes to Australia's external territories, the bill will assure students, parents, employers and governments that the quality of Australian higher education is being appropriately safeguarded. The protocols, agreed to by the mainland states and territories in the year 2000, ensure consistent criteria and standards across Australia in the field of higher education accreditation. Under the proposed amendments, external territories may no longer establish universities or authorise bodies to deliver higher education awards; instead, applications must be made to the Commonwealth Minister for Education, Science and Training for such approval. Senators may wish to note that the Commonwealth has taken full advice on the bill and, according to its advice, is acting within its constitutional rights to regulate the use of the title `university' and the delivery of higher education in the external territories. The bill will override the operation of the Greenwich University Act 1998, Norfolk Island.

Senator Carr —Why did it take so long?

Senator TROETH —This means that Greenwich University will no longer be able to operate as a university or to offer higher education awards until it makes an application demonstrating that it meets the requirements set out in the national protocols. Despite some assertions by Greenwich University to the contrary, the Commonwealth has been advised that it is not liable to pay any compensation to Greenwich University or its students as a result of this legislative action.

For the benefit of senators, I will detail some of the key criteria an Australian university should demonstrate to satisfy the national protocols. An Australian university will demonstrate the following features: authorisation by law to award higher education qualifications across a range of fields and to set standards for those qualifications that are equivalent to Australian and international standards; teaching and learning that engage with advanced knowledge and inquiry; a culture of sustained scholarship, extending from that which informs inquiry and basic teaching and learning to the creation of new knowledge through research and original creative endeavour; the commitment of teachers, researchers, course designers and assessors to free inquiry and the systemic advancement of knowledge; governance, procedural rules, organisation, admission policy, financial arrangements and quality assurance processes that are underpinned by the values and goals previously listed and that are sufficient to ensure the integrity of the institution's academic programs; and sufficient financial and other resources to enable the institution's programs to be delivered and sustained into the future.

Senators may recall that a Commonwealth review panel assessed Greenwich University in December 2000 as not meeting the standards expected of an Australian university. The panel's review took place over several months and included assessment of outcome material such as postgraduate dissertations completed at Greenwich University. The review found deficiencies in the standard of the courses, quality assurance mechanisms and academic leadership at Greenwich University. Senator Carr asked why there have been such long delays in acting on Greenwich University. The decision to establish Greenwich University on Norfolk Island was initially a matter for the Norfolk Island government, using its powers of self-government. The Commonwealth Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government assented to legislation in November 1998 on the understanding that Greenwich University did not intend to operate in mainland Australia. The then Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp, initiated a review of the university's credentials in April 1999, as soon as Greenwich University indicated that it wished to be registered as an Australian university on the register of the Australian Qualifications Framework.

In December 2000 the review panel assessed Greenwich University, as I have said, as not meeting the standards expected of an Australian university. While the government agreed to give Greenwich University an opportunity to address deficiencies identified in that review, it also publicised widely the review findings and the status of Greenwich. The university has now had over 18 months to address the deficiencies identified in the review process, but it has not produced any evidence to the Commonwealth that it meets the required standards. It is sensible to extend the national protocols to Australia's external territories at the same time as the mainland state and territory jurisdictions are acting on this issue.

The continued operation of Greenwich University without accreditation has the potential to significantly damage Australia's standing as a provider of high-quality, quality assured higher education. In addition, under the measures contained in this bill, the International University of America Pty Ltd or any other bodies operating in an external territory will be required to immediately cease using the word `university' in their company or business name. Any body or institution wishing to use the title `university' must apply to the Minister for Education, Science and Training for approval.

As I said at the start, this government is committed to offering to both domestic and international students a high-quality education. One of this government's key priorities is to protect the interests of students and the integrity of the Australian education and training industry. I urge all senators to pass this bill, as it provides the most comprehensive approach to higher education quality assurance in the external territories that we have ever seen and will significantly strengthen Australia's higher education quality assurance framework.

Question agreed to.

Original question, as amended, agreed to.

Bill read a second time.