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Thursday, 26 September 2002
Page: 4958

Senator CARR (9:46 AM) — With respect to the Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill 2002, the opposition will be supporting the government's motion. It is all too clear that we do so in a context where the government has had to acknowledge that attempts to define serious educational policy and then to legislate on it cannot be made on the basis of secret deals. They cannot be done on the basis of what is essentially a policy lazy approach, whereby the government goes off, talks to a couple of people, makes an election announcement and determines to pay substantial public subsidies to a small group of people in the private sector. We have raised our concerns in this regard, essentially because we think that there ought to be some rationality to government policy. After all, if you are going to hand out large sums of public money, you should at least be able to explain why you are doing it.

To date we have had nothing more than the proposition that the government had made an election commitment. It was an election commitment to provide public subsidies to a small group of people, which gave a distinct market advantage to that group of people over and above potentially up to 80 other providers, who may, in turn, seek access to the same public subsidies. There are some serious issues here about policy consistency. There are some very grave concerns about accountability. It is just not good enough for the government to go out and make private arrangements which have serious implications and set precedents for others, who can now rightfully and with great legitimacy say, `This group has got a public subsidy; why haven't we?' This is in the face of a public lobby on behalf of the private sector in education, which actually want to see this subsidy extended to them and have stated so explicitly. This is not only with regard to PELS—the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme—but also with regard to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. There are important questions for us to consider in this regard.

There is a further and substantive issue of quality assurance and the accreditation process. It is about the capacity of this parliament to be confident that the money it is appropriating in education is spent in a manner consistent with the aspirations and the national objectives that are in place in order to produce a very high quality education system which should be the envy of the world. If the government makes private arrangements and relies upon particular accreditation processes based on administrative practices which are now very much out of date—practices which were in fact put in place long before the conditions set down in the national protocols for approval of higher education institutions— then it is possible that the government is performing at somewhat less than optimum best practice.

It is important that we are able to say to students that when they enrol in an Australian educational institution accredited by the government they have the best education available to them and that it is equal to all the educational services offered across the country. We have a standard that we want to protect. This is extremely important for our international reputation. It is also extremely important for individual students to have a qualification that means something. Further, it is very important that we do not have a race to the bottom with the new competitive environment that the government is now trying to foist upon our higher education institutions. The opposition has argued that there ought to be consistency with respect to the accountability requirements and the quality assurance requirements in that regard.

We have a situation where the government have brought a bill into the parliament which was badly thought out. We have been able to expose the extraordinary inadequacies of public administration. The government have relied upon a state government authority that some five or six years ago, under a Liberal government in South Australia, accredited courses on the basis of vocational education performance measures and applied them to a higher education program. There seems to be, in some quarters of the government, a failure to understand the significance of that problem. It has been up to the Labor Party to come forward and help the government out. We are good like that. We see the need to help this mob out because they certainly need a great deal of assistance. They need a considerable amount of assistance, because they are determined to muck it up.

Senator Stott Despoja —So you've done your bit on the bill?

Senator CARR —We have done our best to deal with a very difficult situation as a result of the government's gross incompetence. Now we have had to say to the government, `We'll step in.' Jenny Macklin, Labor's education spokesman, has been able to move amendments in the House of Representatives which the government have had to accept. The logic of our position is quite clearly difficult for the government to resist. Occasionally they have to face facts—and they do on this occasion. Labor has had to salvage something from this terrible situation. It has forced the government to acknowledge the weaknesses of their ways. What is now apparent is that the government have had to acknowledge that Labor was right. Labor was right, and we have won the argument that the quality assurance processes should be made explicit and absolutely consistent with the national protocols. Those national protocols are extremely important for the protection of students and our higher educational institutions.

Importantly, under the amendments that we will see now, there is an opportunity for a watching brief on the issue to be extended by this parliament to ensure that the new system works to the best extent possible and that the states and territories are able to meet their obligations under the national protocols and make sure that there are not accreditations occurring outside those protocols. Obviously, we do not think the whole situation has been resolved. We do not think that is the end of the matter. We believe this issue should be revisited, and we will revisit it. We have, however, substantially improved the accountability requirements. Ms Macklin's amendments do just that. That is why we will be urging the Senate to accept these amendments. These are Labor amendments; the government have been obliged to accept them, and they have to acknowledge that they have made a mistake in the way in which they have approached this issue.

We have been able to achieve the creation of an enduring link in the legislation to ensure that there are reporting requirements which are consistent with those for public institutions. Why shouldn't it be so? Why shouldn't private institutions in receipt of public subsidies be obliged to meet the same requirements as public institutions? Why should there be a lower standard for students in the private sector than for students in the public sector? The other opportunity is that the government are given a mechanism to address issues such as equity and make sure that people are not discriminated against because they are enrolled in private institutions and also to make sure that those private institutions meet their obligations in regard to admissions policy and research activity. This is not our choice of outcomes. Obviously, I do not say to you that this is a course of action that a Labor government would have followed, because it was flawed from the beginning. However, Labor has salvaged the situation and, through these amendments, there is a huge improvement on the original.

Senator Stott Despoja —Is there?

Senator CARR —There is a huge improvement, Senator Stott Despoja. The government have had to back down; the government have had to acknowledge that they made a terrible mistake, and for this minister it is a bit of a humiliation. I think it is only fair to acknowledge that. It must be difficult for him to face this, but, truth be known, this was never his agenda. I think we have to acknowledge that it was not Dr Nelson's agenda—

Senator Sherry —Are you sure?

Senator CARR —I am absolutely certain that Dr Nelson has bigger fish to fry; I acknowledge that. He has essentially had forced upon him an ideologically blinkered strategy left over—in fact, it is part of the debris—from the Kemp regime. He is trying to clear it away.

Senator Sherry —Don't give him that credit!

Senator CARR —He is trying to clear it away. We should give credit where it is due. He has had to face up to the humiliation that the government have been obliged to follow.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Ferguson)—Senator Carr, please address your remarks through the chair.

Senator CARR —I certainly will. I have just been provoked! Labor senators are very concerned about the government's failure here and they do see that there has been this gross error.

Senator Sherry —You're being too soft!

Senator CARR —I think that Dr Nelson has had a poisoned chalice handed to him by Dr Kemp: a policy that was built on an election commitment which was a private deal, an arrangement entered into where special privileges were extended to a particular group of people at the expense of the rest of the industry. It is quite inconsistent with the normal free market strategies pursued by Dr Kemp, but I suppose policy consistency is not a hallmark of conservative governments. I think we have to acknowledge that the government are wrong, they have been embarrassed by this and they have now acknowledged their weaknesses in this regard. I trust the officers from the department who are here with us today will be able to influence the government's direction more effectively in the future, because I am sure they would understand how wrong it is to introduce these sorts of inconsistencies into the Higher Education Funding Act. They would acknowledge in their private moments how relieved they are that there are at least some mechanisms now that they will be able to talk to the states about to ensure that the states do their job.