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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Page: 3838

Senator MASON (10:08 AM) —Thank you, Mr President; the pleasure was all mine. Mr President, can I add my congratulations on your election. I know you will do a terrific job as our President and it will be wonderful to work with you. I also congratulate Senator Sherry on his swearing-in.

Senator Sherry —Thank you very much.

Senator MASON —To continue the second reading debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Removal of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements and National Governance Protocols Requirements and Other Matters) Bill 2008, I say that this is not a question of distrust or a born-to-rule mentality on behalf of the opposition; this is a question about accountability for nearly $9 billion of public funds. The taxpayers who provide billions of dollars every year—as well as private donors—expect greater accountability for the way their money is spent.

I note that Ms Gillard, in her second reading speech, also said:

At the same time that it was ordering universities around, the previous government failed on the very matter it had direct responsibility for. It presided over a massive decline in public investment for our universities—

and so on. I should just correct this. It paints a very misleading picture of the health of our university system and should be corrected. First of all, the previous government’s funding for the higher education sector increased significantly over its term in office, from $4.2 billion in 1995-96 to $6.7 billion in 2007-08, an increase of 60 per cent, or 13 per cent in real terms. But of course the government is stuck in the old socialist paradigm: unless it is public funding, it somehow does not count. In reality, universities today have access to far higher levels of revenue than ever before and from many different sources. That is what has changed. It is estimated that the total revenue available to higher education institutions from all sources was $13 billion in 2004, almost $5.1 billion or 65 per cent more than in 1996. That is the change: the mix going into higher education has changed significantly. What this points to is that, because of government spending combined with the ability of Australian universities to attract funding from other sources, total tertiary education funding is actually above the OECD average—1.6 per cent of GDP in Australia versus 1.4 per cent, which is the OECD average.

Finally, I note that Ms Gillard also said in her second reading speech:

While the governance protocols will be removed as a condition of funding, the government will of course encourage universities to pursue good governance practices and increase productivity and efficiency.

You might ask: ‘How will the government ensure that universities continue to adhere to the best governance standards if it does not have any power to enforce those standards—in other words, if there is no sanction for following those standards?’ If the principle of self-regulation is so good and so worth while, will the government apply it, for example, to corporate regulation? After all, if it is good enough for universities, which receive nearly $9 billion a year of taxpayers’ funding, why should it not be good enough for corporations, which do not? And why is the Minister for Education rallying for the freedom of universities to manage their own affairs with respect to governance but at the same time trying to lock them into more rigid arrangements through university compacts which can set the agenda for universities for years ahead—certainly in the medium term?

The question you need to ask is: ‘Why is Labor against these governance protocols that ensure accountability?’ It is clear that it is in the best interests of the government, the Australian taxpayer and business donors to ensure accountability, transparency and increased professionalism in the way university governing bodies spend money. Furthermore, universities have been supportive of the protocols in the past—surprise, surprise! Let me quote from a joint submission from the University Chancellors Council and Universities Australia to the review of national governance protocols just last year. They said:

The view of the Chancellors and Vice Chancellors is that the existing National Governance Protocols have worked well and that little variation is needed at this stage.

They continued:

It is clear, however, that the effect of the Protocols has been positive overall and has prompted improvements in a number of areas, including in some cases the induction and continuing instruction of members of governing bodies. They have also been helpful in clarifying the respective roles of governing bodies and the executive in the governance framework.

It is highly supportive stuff. They went on to say:

The introduction of the Protocols has provided a useful focus for discussions among Chancellors and Vice Chancellors on governance issues. Some would also give them credit for a renewed focus on risk management and the relations with controlled entities.

On the question of whether the protocols have had any negative impacts on universities, the chancellors and vice-chancellors had this to say:

Not of any significance. They have increased the cost to Universities of compliance. However, to this point, Chancellors and Vice Chancellors have not seen this as a matter of major concern.

So we have a policy that has worked and has the support of all the stakeholders, yet Labor is hell-bent on abolishing it and turning back the clock for Australian universities. I think it is a good idea that when people serve on university boards they are, as the protocols say, ad personam—that they represent themselves and the university, not another governing body, not another professional body, not a trade union, but that they are there in the interests of the university and the university alone in a personal capacity.

If this is indeed the case then I am concerned about this bill. It represents an example, perhaps a scandalous example, of what the supposedly new Labor stands for, which just like old Labor puts the interests of unions and their finances above other interests—in this case the interests of universities, students, taxpayers and accountability to the public. Sure, some universities might like this idea because they, particularly, would not want accountability. That is not their major aim; their major aim is to spend money as they will. I am not as concerned about universities as I am about the taxpayer and making sure there is accountability to the Australian public and the Australian parliament. That is the issue here. It is far more significant than any other issue. The issue is accountability.