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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2345


Senator TIERNEY (6.56 p.m.) —I also wish to speak on the report of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training and the Higher Education Council on the allocation of funds to higher education institutions. While the document speaks about the higher education contribution scheme, it also has a lot to say about the profiling process that is going on in universities and how universities react to it.

  I commend the Higher Education Council for its report, particularly the rather critical view it takes of the way in which DEET is handling the profiling process. Very clearly, there are problems with this process. An enormous amount of the universities' resources are wasted on this approach.

  Universities should be focusing on research, teaching and scholarship but they have to spend a lot of time jumping through the hoops put up by DEET, gathering an enormous amount of data for it. I wonder what is done with much of that data because it does not seem to be of a lot of use to the universities. DEET says that this process is becoming less intrusive but, as I go around the universities, the vice-chancellors are telling me something else.

  In its criticism, the HEC describes one particular part of the profiling process—the visits by DEET to the universities—as being of questionable value. They are becoming more and more routine and, given that they cover a huge agenda in a very short time—government policy, budget, student loans, resource management and evaluation—and given that the universities have to spend a lot of time preparing for these visits, I wonder about their value.

  The council also criticises the short notice given to universities of these visits and of the documentation and other things required. I think the days of this process are numbered. It is not helped by the fact that there is an enormous turnover in DEET staff. That is compounded by the reorganisation of the various divisions within DEET, which means that, as the profile process continues year after year, the universities are dealing with different people—people not familiar with the process.

  There is also considerable mobility at the highest levels of DEET. There are rumours that the first assistant secretary, Michael Gallagher, will be moving on. That is not good for stability and consistent policy development across the higher education sector because at the same time a lot of senior staff are moving around and moving out. There is also the matter of the mobility of senior ministers.

  In 1991 we had Mr Dawkins looking after this area of government; in 1992 we had Mr Baldwin; in 1993 we had Mr Beazley; in 1994 we have Mr Crean; and one wonders who we will have next year in 1995. Changing ministers each year is not good for the process and for policy coherence. This has resulted in creating problems in HECS. Changes from minister to minister have brought about a number of changes in this scheme that have become very unsettling for students.

  It started out as a very good scheme, particularly the way in which it was repaid on a deferred basis through the tax system. But, again, the government has changed the goalposts and brought policy instability into this area. Parents send a child to university; they have a certain fee level and a way of repaying over a certain period of time. It becomes very disturbing to people involved in the higher education process that all of this changes. The government has changed the rate at which payment is to be made and it has also changed the timing of those payments. The reason is that there is now about $2 billion in outstanding HECS debt and Treasury wants to get its hands on it as quickly as possible. The Australian Tax Office does not always know the answers to questions and this compounds the problem. We have many students writing to us complaining about policy confusion in this area. This report raises these concerns and they are things which should greatly concern this Senate. (Time expired)

  Question resolved in the affirmative.