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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8776


Senator MASON (Queensland) (12:45): I rise to speak to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Maximum Payment Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The coalition will not oppose this bill. In summary, this bill updates indexed amounts for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and appropriations under the Australian Research Council Act 2001. The bill also authorises the disclosure of information about students and staff to higher and vocational education providers, to government bodies and agencies as determined by the minister through legislative instrument.

Schedule 1 of the bill seeks to amend HESA in regard to the maximum amounts the Commonwealth can outlay for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships. The amendments contained in the bill apply indexation to these amounts. This indexation is currently done on an annual basis requiring regular amendments to HESA. This bill proposes to allow the minister to determine the maximum amounts for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships by a legislative instrument instead of legislative amendment. Schedule 2 of the bill seeks to amend the Australian Research Council Act to index the existing appropriated amounts and adds the final year of the budget forward estimates.

It is schedule 3, however, that has attracted the most interest and some scrutiny thus far. Schedule 3 of the bill proposes to repeal division 180 of the HESA and enact a new division 180 in its place. The current division 180 allows the departmental secretary to disclose non-personal information to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—TEQSA—and the National VET Regulator for the performance of their duties or exercise of their powers. The new division 180 allows for information that is collected under HESA to be distributed by the departmental secretary not to only TEQSA and the National VET Regulator but also to state and territory agencies, higher and vocational education providers or groups and other bodies as determined by the minister through legislative instrument. The government states that the amendment is required because of the large number of requests from these bodies for information to enable them to accurately assess and monitor the effects of funding. The amendments include new sections creating offences where information is disclosed other than for a permitted purpose.

The coalition is always interested in reducing red tape and information requests from government which put higher compliance costs on stakeholders. But we are also concerned about the privacy implications of the government's policies. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, there is always a need to balance these sometimes conflicting values and conflicting considerations, which is why the coalition has referred this bill to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment for an inquiry to look at more depth at the scope of the new division 180 information sharing regime.

The committee has now reported back to the House of Representatives and recommended that the bill be passed. A majority of submissions from stakeholders supported the new information sharing process. In other words, the privacy concerns would seem to be somewhat overblown. Universities Australia, the Australian Technology Network of Universities and Innovative Research Universities all came out in favour of the new information sharing measures which will hopefully save them time and money in compliance.

As Universities Australia stated in their submission:

Making the higher education information management system data available to the sector through a centralised collection process will ensure that regulatory functions operate within known parameters and that the reporting burden on universities, particularly in duplication of effort, is kept to a minimum. Furthermore, data will be able to be utilised in more proactive ways not currently possible and to more appropriate levels of granularity leading to better public policy outcomes through better provision and access to information.

I note the National Tertiary Education Union's concerns that the range of information, the range of potential recipients and the range of objectives for which the information can be disclosed are all quite broad. That is what the union was concerned about. However, the opposition is reassured to hear that the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has been advising the department at various stages throughout the development of this bill and that the office now seems to be satisfied with the end product. So while we are assured, we of course do not take anything for granted. Just like any other legislation implemented by the government, we will be watching to see how it plays out in practice, what its implementation is like, and we will remain open to feedback from all stakeholders about the impact of these new provisions.

I commend the bill to the Senate.