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Monday, 28 June 1999
Page: 6701

Senator CARR (9:48 PM) —This afternoon we were discussing a Privileges Committee report concerning complaints from a number of academics who had written to the Privileges Committee concerned about statements that had been made involving Greenwich University. These are the same academics who on Monday, 17 May, wrote to the Prime Minister about some of the remarks that I had made.

Senator Tierney —Have you prepared an apology?

Senator CARR —Two of them suggested that the matter be referred to the United States State Department in Washington so that the matter could be referred to at an intergovernmental level with the Australian government. Senator Tierney asks me if I have prepared an apology. I indicate to Senator Tierney that, given the investigation that is under way as a result of the concerns that have been expressed by me, by vice-chancellors and by state governments, and given the concerns expressed by the Minister for Tertiary Education and Training in the state of Victoria—who said on 6 May that he was very concerned about the lack of rigorous processes of review, compared with those carried out by the states, before recognition was given to Greenwich University by the parliament of Norfolk Island—I would have thought that the only apology that is going to be prepared is one by the Prime Minister to the people of Australia concerning the incompetence and buffoonery of his ministers in allowing this disgraceful episode to go on for as long as it has.

I indicated this afternoon that in America there is a view that a thousand flowers ought to bloom in higher education, but in my judgment we might not want some of these to take root in Australia, or we might never want to plant them here in the first place. I have expressed the concern that our university system guards its reputation jealously, for very good cause. It has a reputation built up on the basis of an intellectual tradition of academic rigour built on the well-established empirical, rational and historical intellectual frameworks of science, letters and the arts. While there are important differences between our universities, what holds them together is this common sense of quality assurance and this commitment to rigour.

What is established here is a tradition which generalises the reputation for quality, which reaches right across the Australian higher education system. I think this is why we have been so spectacularly successful in developing an education export industry worth over $3 billion a year. On a per capita basis it is probably much greater than that of the United States. Even though here in the antipodes we are latecomers to the international education arena, we nonetheless have streaked ahead as a result of this commitment to quality. What I am concerned about is that prospective students from overseas should know that an Australian degree will be recognised worldwide—that a professional qualification from an Australian university will open doors wherever it is used. It will be held up everywhere that because it is an Australian university degree it is a matter of substance and quality.

I suggest that this has now changed, and this is the question that is brought into stark relief by the actions of the Norfolk Island legislature that were directed and approved by the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, Senator Ian Macdonald. He has brought an intruder of doubtful provenance into our midst. This one act has the potential to bring down the entire edifice of Australian higher education in terms of its international reputation. It is unfortunate that Australia's lack of a robust standard of accreditation procedures has left us as what can be described as sitting ducks for the interlopers from cyberspace, for these so-called virtual universities. We simply do not have a regulatory framework to deal with this problem. The Internet has managed to elude the many safeguards that currently exist for the rest of the university system.

The ACCC has prosecuted the case of another charlatan institution in recent times—that is, the Australasian Institute, which is registered on the Caribbean island of Grenada. The institute has been found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct. The court has ordered this institution to cease advertising its web based degree and to stop making false claims. It can no longer seek student enrolments.

Australia's laws leave us wide open under the present arrangements. Our company law and education regulation measures are woefully inadequate to deal with these contemporary problems. By means of the Trade Practices Act, the Federal Court can take retrospective action, but it cannot stop shonky outfits from setting up in the first place. The government is trying to repair the damage done by the establishment of Greenwich University itself. It is worth while asking how this entity managed to slip through the safety net so easily.

Senator Tierney —Where's your proof?

Senator CARR —It would seem that we have an answer. We heard in the last round of estimates just what that answer is. When speculating on matters such as this we can see that, as is so often the case in politics, this is another example of a stuff-up rather than a conspiracy—a stuff-up of monumental proportions. The territories department and its minister, Senator Ian Macdonald, were misled by unscrupulous operators who played on their ignorance about matters of higher educa tion in general and Internet universities in particular.

Greenwich University apparently gave assurances to the Norfolk Island Administrator that it would operate only on Norfolk Island. Only a fool like the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government would accept such assurances.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crowley) —Order! I ask you to withdraw that reference to the minister.

Senator CARR —I will withdraw whatever you ask me to. At the same time, it has made no secret of the fact that it is a virtual institution to which the national and physical borders of the island and its coastline are absolutely irrelevant. It took our bureaucrats and our worthy ministers for complete mugs. That is how we have allowed an institution which has already been hounded out of America and New Zealand to set up as a duly legislated Australian university.

We have been told that these matters were handled at the junior officer level within the department. How could such an important matter be dealt with at a junior officer level within the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs? When the department of territories wrote to the department of education and asked about the processes for the approval of an external studies university, one would presume that the minister would have thought that something was wrong when he got assurances that the university would operate only on Norfolk Island. However, none of these problems seemed to occur to this minister.

Australia is now being treated as a happy hunting ground for unscrupulous operators. Our legislative framework is crumbling under the encroachment. Island havens, offshore operations, sneaky company structures and so on are all part of their arsenal. Greenwich University has operated as a trojan horse to breach Fortress Australia. The rest of the mob of corporate spivs and Dodgy Brothers are all claiming to run universities and they have been allowed to enter through this process. Reputations are important, and apparently some of those involved in Greenwich University feel that their reputations have been besmirched. They have written to the Prime Minister about my concerns.

Senator Tierney —They have, and they have written to the Privileges Committee about you.

Senator CARR —They have threatened to create an international incident of the whole affair. I wish them well. There are reputations, and there are others who have reputations. Some unsuspecting academics, whose qualifications and credentials are beyond approach, have got themselves mixed up with this untrustworthy lot. I hope these persons, should they exist, can extract themselves from their embarrassment.

Senator Tierney —You're the one who should be embarrassed!

Senator CARR —The details of these individuals have been provided to the Senate and are all on the web site, as is the prospectus of Greenwich University itself. These simple research tools are available to any senator and they ought to have been available to the departments within this government.

Senator Tierney interjecting

Senator CARR —We have been able to establish accreditation by an Indian tribe. We have seen courses in do-it-yourself space travel and degrees from universities with names like New Utopia. Does that sound far fetched? This is the pattern which is emerging with regard to this university. I say to Senator Tierney and all those who wish to defend these sorts of shonky outfits: if you make your bed, you have got to lie in it.

Senator Tierney —You're the only shonky one, mate.

Senator CARR —I look forward to seeing Senator Tierney come in here and apologise when his own government's inquiry demonstrates that this university has not been able to measure up to the standards of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and to the time when his own minister has to acknowledge the incompetence of his colleague Senator Ian Macdonald. A lot more is at stake here than just reputations. The welfare of students is at stake. When you weigh up the issues, the sensitivities of a few individuals are of relatively minor significance in the general scheme of things.

I expect to receive criticism, but I intend to pursue this question and I seek to clean up this mess. It is not about the small niceties of a few Americans who are claiming that the particular institutions in which they have worked are above reproach. We know about American universities: some of them are very good; others are nothing more than Weet Bix packet operations. The university on Norfolk Island is one of those X-Files operations. I think it is appropriate that it be identified as such.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I call Senator Bartlett.

Senator Tierney —Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: Senator Bartlett is not on the list.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Bartlett is speaking in lieu of Senator Stott Despoja. I should have called Senator Bartlett prior to this, based on his explanation to me, so I am calling him now.