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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10309


Ms BIRD (CunninghamParliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (09:39): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Maximum Payment Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012 amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA) to update the maximum payment amounts for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships and to authorise wider use and disclosure of personal information collected for the purposes of the act.

The maximum amounts for other grants under section 41-45, and Commonwealth scholarships under section 46-40, of the act are being updated to provide for indexation and other variations to funding amounts and to include the next funding year. The bill will allow the minister to determine, by legislative instrument, the maximum payment amounts for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships from 2013 onwards.

There have been annual administrative amendments to the act since its enactment in 2003 to provide for indexation. The continual cycle of amendments is not the most efficient method of updating these appropriation amounts. Allowing the maximum payment amounts to be determined by legislative instrument will avoid the need for recurrent amendments to the act.

The bill would also allow my department to disclose personal information required for a range of regulatory, quality assurance and planning purposes to a limited number of bodies only. Currently, the Higher Education Support Act does not allow the disclosure of personal information outside of my department. Information that can be used to identify individuals is considered to be personal information as defined by the Privacy Act. However, the government’s higher education reforms have highlighted the legitimate demand from a number of bodies for unit record level data relating to university staff and students.

The government established the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Authority (TEQSA) to provide assurance about the quality of the higher education system. TEQSA has written to my department requesting access to unit record data to assist it in undertaking risk assessments of higher education providers. This bill will enable TEQSA to fulfil its regulatory functions in 2012 without the need for a separate data collection.

The Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) requires access to unit record data to assess vocational education and training providers whose students are eligible for VET FEE-HELP loans.

Higher education and vocational education and training providers, their representative peak bodies, tertiary admission centres and state and territory governments require access to detailed information for the purposes of planning and quality assurance. The amendments aim to reduce the regulatory burden on providers who would otherwise have to supply the information to the department and national regulators.

In addition, my department proposes to conduct surveys for the purposes of measuring the quality of teaching and learning. This will require my department to give a third-party services provider access to personal information to construct accurate and robust sample frames for surveys of staff, student and former students funded by the Australian government.

This approach has been endorsed by the Advancing Quality in Higher Education Reference Group in their report released in June 2012, and follows extensive consultation with the sector. Universities Australia has also advocated this approach to reduce the reporting burden on universities.

The bill includes strong provisions to ensure the personal information of staff and students is not misused or released publicly.

First, personal information will only be disclosed to organisations that have a legitimate need for access.

Second, recipients may only use the personal information for the purposes I have outlined, and they will not be permitted to ‘on disclose’ the information.

Third, recipients of personal information will remain bound by the Information Privacy Principles in the Privacy Act, HESA and by the Higher Education Data Protocols administered by my department.

All higher education and vocational education and training providers will need to ensure their privacy agreements are up to date so that students and staff are informed about potential uses and disclosure of their personal information.

In addition, the bill will include a provision that personal information obtained from a higher education or vocational education and training provider can only be disclosed to other providers and bodies with the consent of that provider. This provision will not apply to TEQSA, ASQA or state and territory governments since they require access to personal information to fulfil their regulatory or legislative functions.

Recipients of personal information will be working to enhance the standard of teaching and learning provided at all higher education providers.

This is part of the government’s commitment to maintaining the quality of our tertiary education system, while at the same time making the benefits of education and training available to an unprecedented number of Australians.

Australian Research Council

The bill also amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 in order to provide administered funding to allow the ARC continue to support the highest-quality fundamental and applied research and research training through competitive selection processes across all disciplines, with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry.

The appropriation bill supports the ongoing operations of the ARC to fund the high-quality research we need to address the great challenges of our time, to improve the quality of people’s lives, to support the development of new industries and to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy.

The ARC is the major source of funding for the innovative, investigator-driven research that has underpinned inventions ranging from the synchrotron, and is supporting research into tomorrow’s breakthrough technologies, such as the bionic eye.

ARC-funded research has and continues to play an important role in improving the lives of Australians and addressing the big issues of our time. This includes, for example, our need to transform our manufacturing industries to create greener, healthier and more resilient processes and products. The government is proud that stronger steel and cleaner, safer cars could soon be manufactured in Australia thanks to research made possible with funding from the ARC.

Ongoing funding for the ARC is essential to the vitality of the Australian higher education system and our commitment to strengthen Australia’s research workforce. Excellent researchers across all areas of the university system must be able to compete for funding if we are to keep world-class academics in Australia, working in our universities and teaching the next generation.

It is important to note the key role the ARC has been and is playing in attracting more Indigenous Australians to academia and keeping more women in research careers. This includes, through the Discovery Indigenous scheme, the addition of two new Australian Laureate Fellowships specifically for women and the introduction of Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE) to enable assessors to take into account any career interruptions, including those for childbirth and caring responsibilities.

Through these initiatives and through the whole NCGP, the ARC is helping us to reduce research career barriers and ensure the nation reaps the benefit of all of its research talent.

The ARC is not only supporting quality research and research careers; it is helping the government measure our research investment and assure taxpayers that their money is invested wisely.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.