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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 406


Senator TIERNEY (4.44 p.m.) —I rise to speak to the government response to the Wiltshire report, which was a major review of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training. According to the original act which set up this board, there had to be a review after five years. The review is most welcome. There are over 80 recommendations from Professor Wiltshire on the reform of the NBEET structure. Over the years the opposition has been very critical of the way in which NBEET has operated. It found that it was excessively bureaucratic. At the last election we said we would abolish it. What we found in its operation was that it was a veneer committee with very big responsibilities but very few resources to do anything effective. If it is going to stay, what is needed is a properly resourced body that can do its task far more effectively.

  We went to the last election with the suggestion that we have a much more decentralised approach. One of the great legacies, unfortunately, of the Dawkins era is that so much of educational decision making is centralised and the whole approach is so interventionist. We suggest that the government should move to an approach that is far more deregulated and which provides institutions, particularly the excellent higher education institutions in this country, with far more autonomy.

  Professor Wiltshire, in preparing the report, went through a number of areas in which he felt NBEET should be reformed. In introducing the report, the Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Mr Crean, I believe, was engaging in self-delusion when he said that NBEET has fulfilled the high expectations set for it. It is a system which adds another layer of bureaucracy on an already bureaucratic system. Therefore, much of what it does needs to be considerably reformed.

  I refer to the Australian Research Council, which focuses on the allocation of grants for research in this country. A major inquiry set up by the Senate on research in Australia examined the ARC in great depth and found that the ARC did good work but, in line with what I said at the beginning of my speech about this body being under resourced, it found that the ARC was considerably under resourced while doing an excellent job. The recommendation by Professor Wiltshire to beef up resources to this body is most welcome.

  NBEET has continued to ignore the adult and community education sector which, again, the Senate has inquired into extensively. One of the recommendations that we made, that it should have its own council, was ignored. There was a committee set up and that procedure continues, but seeing that there are more students in the adult and community education sector than there are in all the universities in Australia, one would have thought that that sector should have greater recognition and greater input into policy advice.

  One of the recommendations that is most disturbing relates to the Committee for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. It has been proposed that this be brought into the ambit of NBEET and that it become a formal committee of NBEET. I would have thought that the quality assurance committee should be abolished. It has done enormous harm to higher education by the way in which it ranks universities. It damns forever quite a number of excellent universities in this country. It has harmed our reputation overseas. What the government has done in this area will cause a bad financial impact for many of these institutions. Because their reputation has been damaged, their chance of attracting overseas students has been reduced.

  One of the most welcome recommendations of the report by Professor Wiltshire is that NBEET come under the scrutiny of this parliament through the review of its reports and its operations by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training. This will give us the opportunity of calling expert witnesses and scrutinise all aspects of its operations. If this committee structure is to continue, this particular finding of the report is most welcome.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Debate resumed from 23 August 1994, on motion by Senator Kemp:

  That the Senate take note of the document.