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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 3151


Senator MASON (Queensland) (17:25): This bill is important because it seeks to ensure the quality of all Australian higher education providers as the sector embraces a period of very rapid expansion. To that end, this bill will establish the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, or TEQSA for short. In essence, this bill aims to maintain the quality of our higher education sector, Australia's most valuable non-mineral export. Never forget, more overseas students study in Australian universities and other higher education institutions than in any other country on earth as a percentage of our population. It is one of our great national achievements. Meeting the aim of this bill then is critical to our national interest.

For such an important bill, when the initial draft was circulated last year it was substandard. I received many people in my office complaining about the bill. The powers were excessive, draconian and perhaps were not proportionate to the risks involved for different providers and in different contexts. But to the government's significant credit—and here I offer particular congratulations to Minister Evans—it undertook extensive and genuine consul­tation with the higher education sector. The bill was reworked and the legislation was greatly improved and most of its provisions and deficiencies removed. In Professor Greg Craven's words, 'It moved from boilerplate legislation to legislation more fit for purpose'—specific to the higher education sector, rather than off-the-shelf regulation. To give credit where credit is due, the government's approach to this really was model consultation and the government is to be congratulated for its efforts.

The Senate committee inquiry that followed was extremely useful and I thank the chair, Senator Marshall, and also the deputy chair, Senator Back, who were also at public hearings in April in Melbourne. Prior to the inquiry, the coalition held a number of concerns about aspects of the bill, and those were reflected in the eight key recom­mendations in the Senate committee's report. The threshold issue for gaining the coalition support was the recognition of universities' right of self accreditation—that is, the right of universities to accredit the courses they teach without having to seek the approval of government. We also had concerns about the length of time TEQSA had to make decisions. It often takes non-self-accrediting higher education providers 12 months to prepare a course for submission to the regulatory authority, and a further 24-month period would have meant any potential course could have been out of date by the time it was approved. Happily these issues have been resolved in the amendments circulated by the minister. We are heartened that he was able to join the Senate committee in supporting his worthwhile goals, and again to the government's credit they have accepted all of the Senate committee's recommendations and the coalition is now happy to support this bill. However, as this is the first major bill giving effect to a significant element of the new Bradley inspired architecture for our universities, let me take this opportunity to sound some notes of caution relating not so much to the ultimate aims of the Bradley reforms but to their implementation by this government. Implementation has always been the Achilles heel of both the Rudd government and the Gillard government. In the area of education one can name one program after another—Building the Education Revolution, Com­puters in Schools, Fibre Connections to Schools, trade training centres, Indigenous children family centres, Indigenous residen­tial colleges—which read like an encyclopaedia of government failure. This is despite the best and often the most noble of intentions. The most prominent of them, such as the BER, have now become public synonyms for waste, lack of planning, mismanagement and botched imple­mentation.

Part of the problem, in my view, is this government's obsession with metrics. The government will say: 'We need to achieve a one-to-one student computer ratio by the end of 2011.' 'The BER stimulus will be targeted, timely and temporary.' 'The internet connection for laptops will be up to 100 megabits per second.' Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The obsession with metrics comes at the expense of basic work that would make a government program successful. There does not seem to be much planning done after the initial brainwave from the minister's office or the Prime Minister's office. There are no cost-benefit analyses done and no mechanisms are put in place to properly supervise the implementation and oversee the expenditure of taxpayers' money by other parties—and often by state governments. We get the worst of all worlds and, in the end, the metrics are not achieved. Everyone knows that the BER largely did not provide value for money and its implementation is well behind schedule, as is that of Computers in Schools—and God only knows how many years it will take to connect computers to fibre internet.

In addition to the metrics not being achieved, the projects are plagued by a lack of foresight and detailed planning, mismanagement and wasted precious resources. In fact, the two problems are related. It is hard to achieve the metrics when you have not actually thought of what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it. Government senators think I am simply having a free kick at the government, but let me go on.

Senator Sterle: I think you are being mischievous and deceitful!

Senator MASON: Even if they deserve a kick? But that is not my point. These topics have been traversed by me and by Mr Pyne and others over the last few years. I raise these concerns for this reason: I am worried that this government's performance in implementing its schools agenda will affect the grand project of reforming Australia's higher education system—and it is a grand project and a worthwhile one.

The Bradley review has set an ambitious goal of increasing participation in tertiary education to 40 per cent of our young people, a goal which the government has adopted and targeted to achieve by the year 2025. The opposition joins the government in this aspirational target. Indeed, from the start of next year we will see the first substantial steps towards achieving this goal with a move to a system driven by student demand. It is perfectly obvious to everyone in the sector, as well as to any observer, that a significant influx of additional student numbers—it will be tens of thousands and, over the next two decades or so, hundreds of thousands—will necessitate a large expan­sion of our universities' physical and teaching infrastructure. This in turn will require additional government outlays of tens of billions of dollars between now and 2025.

Exactly how much will it require? That is a very, very good question. Sadly, I believe it is not one that the government has answered. It has not really even asked it in the first place. We learnt in the budget estimates a few weeks ago that there is little planning or forecasting and no projections. No cost-benefit analysis at all has been done or even commissioned to be done by the government in relation to the implementation of the Bradley reforms. We as a nation have embarked on one of the largest and most significant reforms of our higher education system in history. Yet we are moving forward largely blind, unaware both of the cost that taxpayers will have to incur over the next decade and a half to make the reforms happen as well as the benefits that we would expect to accrue to our economy and society as a result of having a more educated Australian population. Once again, the government is being completely blinded by the metric of 40 per cent of 20- to 34-year-olds having a bachelor's degree or more by 2025, ignoring all the careful planning that has to be done as a foundation of successful implementation.

Let me just say this: the coalition will not support a blind and uninformed rush towards arbitrary targets if it would in any way damage our higher education system and affect its performance and international reputation. We cannot allow a situation to develop where quantity is achieved at the expense of quality. The high standards of our universities cannot be compromised simply because the government wants to meet a metric without providing adequate resources. It will actually be a step backwards if we produce more degrees and they are worth less simply because our universities are not able to maintain quality within the constraints of government targets and government financing.

This point was clearly underlined in an April report from the New York based Institute of International Education which looked at the reasons behind the decline in overseas student enrolments here in Australia. It was discussed in the 'Higher Education Supplement'of the Australian just yesterday. There is international concern that standards in Australian universities are not as high as our competitors. I know Senator Evans and others in the government would be concerned with that. The coalition is concerned about the implementation of the Bradley reforms by the government. We will be watching carefully how the reform unfolds. We put the government on notice that aspirations, however high and noble, count for little if they are not implemented in a well thought out and properly financed manner.

In conclusion, the coalition is happy to support this bill in its current form, as amended, and commends the government for adopting all the recommendations of the Senate legislation committee. It has been a good decision by the government and is again illustrative of the fact that the government and Senator Evans have gone a long way towards improving this legislation and listening to the higher education sector in the consultation process and the com­mittee process. I again thank Senator Evans and, indeed, the department for that consultation process, which I did describe as 'model'. If only that were the case in relation to all legislation, that would be a great thing, but perhaps it is too much to ask for. I commend the bill to the Senate and indicate that the opposition will support the amendments that have been circulated by the government.