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Thursday, 16 June 2011
Page: 3154


Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western AustraliaMinister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (17:38): I thank Senator Mason for his contribution and acknowledge that Senator Hanson-Young is unable to speak because she cannot make it to the chamber at the moment but is also supportive of the legislation. I thank Senator Mason for the last three or four minutes of his speech—and I will not rise to the challenge of the rest of the speech, which was inflammatory and not particularly to the point! I think that reflected the fact that, being in screaming agreement on the bill, he had to talk about something else for the first 15 minutes. I acknowledge the constructive contribution he has made to the development of this legislation and I appreciate his cooperation in bringing it before the parliament and, hopefully, having it carried today.

Madam Acting Deputy President, I seek leave to table an addendum to the explanatory memorandum relating to the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency Bill 2011.

Leave granted.

Senator CHRIS EVANS: The bill before the chamber establishes the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, known as TEQSA, as a single national regulator and quality assurance agency for Australia's higher education sector. The establishment of TEQSA is a key reform of this government's productivity and participation agenda. It forms part of the package of reforms announced in the 2009-10 budget in response to the 2008 Bradley review of higher education. The reforms bring about significant changes to the current landscape of Australian higher education—ones that unfortunately have not been as well recognised or discussed as should have been the case.

In achieving our ambitious targets for higher education attainment, we have introduced demand-driven funding for undergraduate places at public universities from 2012. This is a far-reaching and fundamental economic reform that will transform the scale, potential and quality of our universities and open the doors of higher education to a new generation of Australians. In what will be a period of rapid growth in enrolments in higher education, we need to be confident, however, that our students are receiving quality education—a point that Senator Mason made in his contribution.

TEQSA will play a central role in ensuring the overall quality of our higher education system. It will use a standards based approach to regulation, which will require providers to meet or exceed threshold standards in order to be registered and deliver higher education in Australia. It will place the current state and territory based systems for registration and course accreditation and quality assurance arrangeĀ­ments currently undertaken by the Australian Universities Quality Agency. This will reduce from nine to one the number of federal, state and territory regulatory and quality assurance bodies. As highlighted during the Senate inquiry into the bills, maintaining nine different regulatory and quality assurance bodies is inherently inefficient and places a burden on the higher education sector.

TEQSA's regulatory approach will be risk based and proportionate. At all times it must adhere to the basic principles of regulation which are embedded in the bills. These principles—regulatory necessity, reflecting risk and proportionate regulation—will ensure TEQSA takes into account the scale, mission and history of each provider when undertaking its regulatory functions. Where poor quality is identified, TEQSA will intervene with an escalating series of responses in accordance with the principles. The action TEQSA will take will depend on the risk of the provider and the seriousness of the contravention.

I think our experience in the international education market in the last few years has taught us the importance of the need for this sort of regulation and also the need to take a risk based approach to the providers. Given the importance of TEQSA for the future of Australia's higher education system, the government has actively engaged with the higher education sector in developing the TEQSA. Their cooperation and engagement has been of the first order and I thank them for that. I express my appreciation to Universities Australia, the Council of Private Higher Education, TAFE Directors AustĀ­ralia, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the National Union of Students for their contributions. It really has been a strong and collaborative effort.

I acknowledge the work of the senators who participated in the inquiry into the bill and I appreciate the work that they did. I would also like to commend the work of the key officials in my department who steered the development of the TEQSA legislation and did the hard work of delivering an outcome in which the higher education sector has confidence. In particular, I thank Lisa Schofield and David Hazelhurst, who I know have worked very hard to get the result—probably beyond the call of duty. We appreciate that effort.

The establishment of TEQSA is a critical step towards ensuring that the expansion and diversification of Australia's higher education sector does not come at the expense of quality. The introduction of a national system of regulation will provide for greater consistency and improved quality across the sector. It will provide a safeguard that our students are receiving a quality education. It reflects this government's continued commitment to creating a world-class higher education system which is diverse, innovative and responsive to the needs of students.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.