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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 2


Senator ABETZ (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (9:33 AM) —I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA) to provide funding to support the implementation of the Research Quality Framework (RQF). 

It will also make important changes to our higher education sector by implementing a revised set of National Protocols for Higher Education Approval Processes.  The revised Protocols will provide greater diversity within our higher education sector by allowing new types of institutions to operate in Australia. 

The Bill will also make other amendments to the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Act 2003.

The Bill highlights this Government’s commitment to achieving both excellence and relevance in research, by providing around $41 million to assist universities and other higher education providers with the implementation of the RQF.

The RQF will ensure taxpayers’ money is being invested in research of the highest quality which delivers real benefits to the higher education sector and also to the wider community.  However, the Government recognises that there will be implementation costs associated with the adjustment to the new RQF system. 

The funding contained in this Bill will support this implementation process, particularly the activities and systems required for participating institutions to engage effectively and efficiently with the RQF.  The Australian Scheme for Higher Education Repositories programme will support the establishment of digital repositories throughout the higher education sector. The Implementation Assistance Programme will provide support to assist institutions with new administrative and information systems for the RQF.

The Bill also amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA) to reflect changes to the National Protocols for Higher Education Processes. The National Protocols were first agreed by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs in 2000, and regulate the recognition of new universities, the operation of overseas universities in Australia and the accreditation of courses offered by higher education institutions.   In other words, the National Protocols are the “gateway” to our higher education system.

In July 2006, Ministers approved a set of revised National Protocols to take effect from 31 December 2007, which will require legislative change in all jurisdictions.

Revisions to the National Protocols are the outcome of extensive consultations involving State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments, as well as the higher education sector.   The revisions make possible the emergence of specialist universities, concentrating teaching and research efforts in only one or two broad fields of study. 

The revised Protocols provide pathways for more institutions to become self-accrediting, where they have a strong track record in higher education delivery and quality assurance.  They also allow new universities to develop from provisional “university colleges” under the sponsorship of an established university.

Another significant change is the extension of the National Protocols to apply to all new and existing higher education institutions.

All of these changes align very well with this Government’s vision for a more diverse Australian higher education sector.  While prestigious, comprehensive universities will always have a place within a diverse sector, the revised National Protocols will encourage new types of institutions to operate in Australia.

Australia needs a high quality higher education sector with a range of institutions servicing different communities and varied requirements.  A diverse higher education sector will have the flexibility to respond to volatile international markets.  Further, greater diversity will promote choice for students, staff and employers, and encourage competition and excellence amongst institutions. 

In separate measures, the Bill allows for the first time, cross-institutional arrangements to be extended to Commonwealth supported students at non Table A higher education providers.  Previously, Commonwealth supported students were only able to undertake study in Commonwealth supported places in a cross-institutional arrangement between Table A providers.   This amendment provides greater flexibility for providers and extends the range of study options available to Commonwealth supported students.

The Bill also sets a six week time limit for the provision of corrected information by a student that affects their eligibility for Commonwealth assistance. 

Further, the Bill contains a number of technical amendments that will clarify existing Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) and Commonwealth supported student arrangements and ensure the legislation reflects original policy intent. 

The Bill clarifies the overseas study requirements in relation to eligibility for OS-HELP assistance by enabling a student to apply for OS-HELP assistance if they are already overseas. 

The Bill ensures that higher education providers may determine the campuses at which units of study will be offered to Commonwealth supported students.  This amendment will allow providers to stipulate that a student may be Commonwealth supported for their units of study, only if the student undertakes those units at a particular campus of the provider. The Bill requires that Commonwealth supported students must reside in Australia while undertaking their studies (although provision is made to ensure entitlement to Commonwealth support and assistance where a student is required to be overseas for part of their course of study).

The Bill will ensure that permanent residents will not be entitled to Commonwealth support or HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP assistance if they are undertaking their entire course of study overseas.

In addition to these measures the Bill contains some minor technical amendments which will improve the overall operation of the Higher Education Support Act 2003.  One such measure is to ensure that the suspension of approval as a higher education provider under the Act will be a legislative instrument and therefore made publicly available on the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments.

This Bill before the Senate is a clear expression of the Australian Government’s strong commitment to higher education and will enhance the quality and diversity of our higher education system and the choices available to our students. It reflects the government’s commitment to ensuring that Australia’s research and higher education sectors continue to play a vital role in our economic, cultural and social development.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.