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Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Page: 1684


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (12:19): I rise to make a few comments on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014 and the amendment moved by the member for Cunningham. The one thing about this bill and the proposed amendment that struck me is quality. The bill focuses on the quality of our higher education sector. The quality of our higher education sector is the subject of a very important and timely debate because of what is occurring at the moment in our higher education, whether it be in our universities or our vocational sector.

This bill is a response to the review into higher education regulation and to sector concerns about regulatory overreach. It is true that, particularly within our international education sector, there have been a number of providers who have not lived up to the standard to which Australia markets itself. There has been some need for improvement and for the government to step in. The reputation of our higher education sector internationally is very important and it should be protected. Many times already in this sitting of parliament we have heard speakers talk about how higher education is becoming a large, if not the largest, exporter in our country. It is important for our local economy and for earning export dollars.

However, our universities and other higher education providers are self-accrediting, which demands a quality assurance process that can verify that accreditation. To do that we need a strong national tertiary education regulator. We needed to ensure that self-regulation is done in a way that produces the best results. A strong education sector is crucial to having a prosperous community and it is crucial to our economy.

This bill seeks to spill the positions of all five TEQSA commissioners, which is consistent with the recommendations of the review. But most of the proposals of this bill do not focus on the removal of the quality assessment function. There is that word quality again. If we are to have a strong education sector it is crucial that we focus on that word quality. I will highlight the quality aspect in relation to the university in my electorate, La Trobe Bendigo, which has, unfortunately, made the news in the past few days. They announced last Friday that they would be shedding 350 jobs from the campus. They are going through a restructure. Their strategic plan, Future Ready, is what they are talking to their staff about. As I speak, departments at the university are meeting with staff and are proceeding with restructuring plans.

You might ask why Latrobe are proceeding down this path right now? Losing 350 jobs from any organisation is significant. It represents 15 per cent of their workforce. At the moment, we do not know where the jobs are going to be lost. We do not know if they will be lost from my home campus of Bendigo, from Wodonga, from Shepparton or from Latrobe. The university is going through that assessment as we speak. They believe they are responding to a need to remain viable; they want to make sure they have a future. Like many universities, they had a quota for how many students they were trying to get through their international section. They thought that they would hit higher numbers of international students and when they did not it affected their projected budgets. They also thought that they would attract more domestic students through their demand-driven model. Whilst they have, they believe they are now getting close to a cap on how many students locally wish to obtain a university degree. This goes to our current higher education debate and how we choose to go forward.

When I met with the vice-chancellor of Latrobe University, just yesterday, we discussed what is going to happen at the campus in my electorate and what is going to happen across the board. One of the things he said to me that struck home was 'we do not want to compromise quality, we want to ensure that the students coming in our doors to study have a certain level of academic ability and we are not willing to sacrifice quality.' That represents a campus in a university that is trying to be proactive about ensuring their standards of quality. They may never need to be drawn before the TEQSA regulator. They are one of the organisations in the industry who care about their reputation and their quality. But there are a number of others who do not.

In a previous role of mine working for United Voice as a union organiser I spoke to international students about their workplace rights. It was not too long before the conversation started to focus on the academic rights of students and their treatment in their place of study. We have all heard of the stories where students rocked up to places where there was a front door and a phone but no desks; people were squashed in like sardines; a promise that a course would be delivered for 13 weeks but then the program was only for four weeks; and a hospitality course which really involved going to work for the local fish and chip shop for free for 10 weeks—a manipulation of not just the education experience but also the workplace rights of students. There are some dodgy players out there who are bringing down our reputation overseas. That is why it is so important that in any discussion on higher education we focus on quality.

I also want to touch on the idea that international students are our largest export industry. At least in the state of Victoria that is becoming the case, and it is the fourth-largest export industry in the country—sustaining over 100,000 jobs and generating over $15 billion annually. It is a big industry and some might think its relative size came about by a bit of an accident—we have had a drop in manufacturing, we have had a drop in agriculture and we have had an explosion of international students coming to study here. Overnight—in the last decade—we have had this big industry. It does go to a broader problem that we have with how we as a nation are creating our future industries. Should we have a strong higher education sector with a large international component? Yes we should. But should it be our largest exporter? That is an area of debate we need to focus on. In another forum we need to discuss the future make-up of the industries in this country.

By 2020, over three million students worldwide will be seeking the offshore education experience, so we do have an opportunity to continue to attract students to our country. To play a significant role in that space we need to make sure we are delivering quality. That is why it is so important that we have an independent regulator with oversight of the area. To refer to the example of La Trobe again, with the staff cuts and restructuring going on—I fully understand why the university is taking this path—questions are being asked about the quality of courses. We need to make sure students receive a high quality product, that classes are not too big and that they have tutorials every week and not every second week. Even in a campus like La Trobe Bendigo, there are always questions being asked about quality and about making sure students get the best opportunity and experience.

Apart from the quality of courses and the experience of the students, job losses put pressure on remaining staff. If you have fewer staff delivering the same workload, the workload of each individual staff member increases. It could be an extra 15 per cent, if you want to use basic mathematics, or it could be the picking up of extra students or larger tutorial numbers.

One of the reasons why La Trobe Bendigo have flagged that they have to sack 350 people and need to move down a path of getting future-ready is that they are unsure about their future budget from this place—this House and this government. They do not know what their future budget will be. They do not know if they are going to get the same level of financial support from the government. They have raised concerns with me about some of the language they are hearing in the media that universities need to be self-sustaining, that universities need to stand on their own two feet and that the money going towards universities is unsustainable. 'Unsustainable' is the magic word which nobody can really define except as, 'We think we're putting too much money into this area and we want to spend it in other places.'

It is so important that, if we are serious about quality and the higher education industry continuing to be an industry that we can export, we continue in the basics of investing by making sure that our universities do have the resources that they need and are able to meet the international standard and reputation that all of us are talking about today.

As I have mentioned in my speech today, it is important for quality that we have a robust and strong regulator that is able to be independent and impartial and able to pull up those who are doing the wrong thing and hurting our reputation and, more importantly, delivering an inferior education experience for Australian students or international students. That is the first step, and that is the purpose of this bill. But the second step is for all of us to remember that we need to continue to invest in and not cut higher education because, if we see the cuts that are being foreshadowed come through in the budget, I fear it is not just going to be 350 jobs lost at La Trobe; it could be much more. La Trobe has started; where next?

The last thing we want to see happen in our higher education university sector are the redundancies we have seen happen in the Victorian TAFE sector week after week and month after month. There have been so many jobs lost in the Victorian TAFE sector that is hard to know today if vocational education is being delivered in Victoria. This is what happens when coalition governments get elected. They seek easy funding cuts, and higher education tends to be the first on the chopping block. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that you want to have a robust and high-quality international export market for international students and education and at the same time cut the resources that help deliver that education. I commend the bill.