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Economics Legislation Committee
15/02/2012
Estimates
INNOVATION, INDUSTRY, SCIENCE AND RESEARCH PORTFOLIO
Australian Skills Quality Authority

Australian Skills Quality Authority

[18:01]

CHAIR: Welcome, Mr Robinson and officers of the Australian Skills Quality Authority to Senate estimates. We have two sets of questions. We will start with Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it fair enough to say that ASQA’s main job is to reduce duplication and complexity of the VET regulation?

Mr C Robinson : Certainly prior to ASQA’s establishment there were eight different main regulators covering the VET sector around Australia in each jurisdiction. The focus has been to get a sharpness into that regulation and to have a consistent approach across the country. As the minister mentioned earlier, two states have not referred their powers to the Commonwealth to allow a totally national approach, but under the arrangements where states who have not yet referred but are intending to, by the time ASQA is fully established it will have responsibility for over 4,000 of the 4,900 RTOs, or registered training organisations, in Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it still on track to be operating on a full cost recovery basis within two years?

Mr C Robinson : No, it is not. That has not been the intention. It is the intention to ultimately operate on a full cost recovery basis. It is anticipated that we will reach 85 per cent of full cost recovery by the end of the forward estimates period.

Senator RHIANNON: One hundred per cent?

Mr C Robinson : That has to be set in the future forward estimates.

Senator RHIANNON: So, you just have not worked on that? Do you have a plan for it?

Mr C Robinson : We are about 60 per cent this coming budget year. We are moving over two or three years to that 85 per cent. A fairly sharp growth pattern is planned for.

Senator RHIANNON: Have any RTOs requested exemption from any of the national standard requirements?

Mr C Robinson : No. RTOs are not able to be exempted from being compliant around all the national standards.

Senator RHIANNON: That is just not possible?

Mr C Robinson : No. In the process of regulation, if there were some minor matters that the RTO was working on, the commission would take account of that in its regulatory work, but essentially RTOs are obliged and required to be compliant at all times with the national standards to be able to maintain their licence.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say ‘minor matters’, could you define what they are and is that just on a temporary basis or could they get exemption for minor matters?

Mr C Robinson : No, it is absolutely on a temporary basis. We rarely would make a decision to allow people to continue to be non-compliant. In fact, ASQA is taking, I think, a much tougher line on this issue than previous regulators did. There was much more of a focus in previous arrangements to have a dialogue with providers and give them quite long time periods to become compliant, but that strategy has tended not to produce the compliance that is needed. We are taking the approach of requiring them to be compliant to continue to operate. In some cases, they might not be compliant in relation to one part of their training delivery, not their whole training delivery, and so they might have a suspension in relation to being able to offer that particular course.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to just pick up on the issue of Victoria and Western Australia. Considering they are not in yet, are you interacting with them to help get them in, and could you explain how that is working?

Mr C Robinson : On 1 July the providers in Victoria and Western Australia that either have overseas students or operate in other states that are referring are all required to come under ASQA and did so on 1 July. So, around half of the providers in Victoria came under our jurisdiction on 1 July and around a third of those in Western Australia have already come under our jurisdiction. We have developed transition agreements with both the Western Australia and Victorian regulator, and we are in the process of developing more ongoing agreements with them to make sure we have a streamlined approach in how we do our business vis-a-vis they do theirs, because sometimes a provider will change their status. For example, they may intend enrolling international students when they did not before, and so they will change from the state regulator to us in that circumstance. We have arrangements in place to work with those providers to make that as seamless a process as possible. The issue of their coming under ASQA fully is a matter for their governments.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it true that they have mirroring legislation? Are they looking to manage it themselves on a state basis?

Mr C Robinson : Prior to ASQA commencing and the legislation being proclaimed, each state had legislation governing regulation of VET, and Victoria and Western Australia have legislation in place that continues the processes that they had in place prior to the commencement of ASQA. But they do relate to the national standards for VET and so there are some similarities in what they are doing and what we are doing.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, could I ask you to come in on this? Are there discussions with your counterparts in Victoria and Western Australia to sort this out?

Senator Chris Evans: No. I hope that both states will see the benefit of one national regulator, and I think in the fullness of time they will, but at the moment it has become a bit of a states’ rights argument. To be fair to the states, they run their own TAFE systems and so there is a sense that they fund those and they want to regulate them. I think what we have seen, particularly through the international education experience in recent years, is that having one national regulator able to deal with these issues is a huge advantage. I do not think there is any immediate prospect of their coming across, unless we have had some better and later information, but to be frank I think in the fullness of time they will join and delegate their powers.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering there is the federal funding component, when the negotiations occur around federal funding are you linking this issue of regulation with that?

Senator Chris Evans: No.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you made the decision just to be hands-off and leave it up to them when they are going to come on board?

Senator Chris Evans: Mr Griew might be able to answer whether or not it has come up at all, but this is a decision for them. We have the capacity to regulate in respect of international students, even though they are in those states, and we have the capacity to regulate if an operator operates between two states, but that has been a separate negotiation. Mr Griew, I am not sure what has been raised in the context of the national negotiations with the new agreements.

Mr Griew : As to the focus of the discussion so far, the Commonwealth on behalf of the government has continued to prosecute the argument with both of those jurisdictions that the best outcome would be for a referral from their parliaments, from their governments. Their governments’ positions are public and well known and their officers are not showing any particular sign there that they are going to change rapidly, so the conversation has been more about how we can make sure that the regulators work together effectively under the current situation where there are dual regulators in those jurisdictions and also that the other issues—and you raised several when you were questioning the department before—are being taken up and sorted. So, there continues to be a stand-off, if you will, a disagreement, but that does not mean there is not good work happening between Mr Robinson’s agency and the equivalent agencies in their two states, as far as we are able to coordinate and where we are getting quite a lot of cooperation in following through the other quality issues that you have raised and we have talked about.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Minister.

CHAIR: Senator Bushby.

Senator BUSHBY: I welcome the officers from ASQA to the economics committee meeting. Senator Rhiannon has canvassed some of the stuff that I was going to look at, but I have one question just to start off with. Has the agency received any reports of registered training organisations ticking and flicking to approved students for qualifications that they are not really eligible to receive?

Mr C Robinson : Yes, from time to time people do raise—and that is one of the functions of ASQA—issues with us about students. Or other interested parties can raise questions and ASQA will look into those matters. We have had—

Senator BUSHBY: How many reports would you have had?

Mr C Robinson : We have had quite a large number. I will pull out the numbers in a moment. When those complaints are lodged with us we investigate them and there are a number of actions we can take about them. We also liaise with the Commonwealth Ombudsman in relation to overseas students, and the state Ombudsmen as well, if it is an issue that affects a state service delivery. So far, in the first six months of our operations, 1 July to 31 December, we have received 333 complaints about RTOs from students and other parties.

Senator BUSHBY: Have they all been dealt with? Of those that have been dealt with, what proportion of them would be proven and what would have been dismissed?

Mr C Robinson : We have closed about 100 of those 333 at the moment. Sixty-eight were found to be not substantiated and 33 were substantiated. So, they would lead us to require the RTOs to do certain things to rectify what the complaint was.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you. I will move on in view of the limited amount of time. Senator Rhiannon asked some questions about the cost recovery model. I noted that the intention is to get to 85 per cent by the end of the forward estimates. You are doing that, as I understand it, by ramping up the fees over time to achieve that end; is that correct?

Mr C Robinson : Yes. A fee schedule was published when ASQA commenced. It followed the department running quite an extensive consultation process with stakeholders, RTOs and the like about the fees. In most cases the fees are higher than the fees that were charged by previous state regulators, but not in all cases.

Senator BUSHBY: That is what I was going to ask you. Is it possible—and I am happy for this to be on notice, given the time—to provide a breakdown of how these fees compare with what did exist beforehand?

Mr C Robinson : Yes, we can provide that on notice. We have the details.

Senator Chris Evans: Can I just make one quick point. The existing state regulation was inadequate and, I think, widely accepted as such. I made it very clear to Mr Robinson that this government wants appropriate regulation. The students need to be able to be assured of a quality experience. We are funding it, the states are funding it and international students are paying for it, and we need to make sure we have a very strong quality authority. I think it is fair to say some of the state systems were underfunded and therefore did not do the job comprehensively. So, I make no apology for the fact that we are going to require decent fees to make sure we have a good-quality regulator.

Senator BUSHBY: That is fine. I am not casting any aspersions.

Senator Chris Evans: No, I am just making the point.

Senator BUSHBY: This is a new agency that has not appeared before me before and I am just trying to find out a little bit about how everything works.

Senator Chris Evans: No, I was not being critical. I just wanted to put that on the record.

Senator BUSHBY: How many employees currently work for ASQA?

Mr C Robinson : We have about 110 or 112 at the moment. We are in the process of being established. As you may be aware, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia are currently in the process of coming across to ASQA and the issues are going through their parliaments as we speak.

Senator BUSHBY: When are those states expected to be fully referred?

Mr C Robinson : We are expecting them to be referred before the end of the financial year. In the case of Tasmania the legislation has been through both houses of parliament and the proclamation was due to occur today. That will include notification of an actual referral date, which we are expecting to be in the next couple of months. Queensland has listed the referral in its parliamentary sittings this week. It has been through its committee stages and hopefully that legislation will go through this week. Similarly, South Australia has also got its legislation listed this week for sittings, and so we are getting to the final stages of those referrals with those states.

Senator BUSHBY: That is good. In respect of the employees—and if you would take this on notice it would be fine as well—can you provide a breakdown of their APS levels? Not by name, but just in terms of how many of each.

Mr C Robinson : We could, yes.

Senator BUSHBY: What will be the total remuneration payable to the chief commissioner, Mr Christopher Robinson?

Mr C Robinson : It is a matter of public record.

Senator BUSHBY: I would not be asking if it was not a matter of public record.

Mr C Robinson : It is around $350,000.

Senator BUSHBY: What would be the total remuneration payable to the commissioner of risk analysis and investigation, Mr Michael Lavarch?

Mr C Robinson : We will take that on notice. We are just not too sure of the exact amount.

Senator BUSHBY: If you could provide that.

Mr C Robinson : It would be a lesser amount.

Senator Chris Evans: He has not commenced.

Mr C Robinson : He is commencing in April.

Senator BUSHBY: Do you know what date in April?

Mr C Robinson : He is due to commence on 16 April.

Mr Griew : The answer to that question will, of course, be determined by a remuneration tribunal determination that sets the remuneration for all three of the commissioners.

Mr C Robinson : It is already published on the website. We will provide you with the information.

Senator BUSHBY: I cannot complain about the remuneration tribunal setting salaries.

Mr C Robinson : It will not be something that is negotiated with each individual. It is the set amount by the tribunal.

Senator Chris Evans: I wrote to the rem tribunal. They made a determination, and Mr Lavarch will take up one of the positions, as Mr Robinson has, and will be paid those rates.

Senator BUSHBY: How was the position that Mr Lavarch has been appointed to decided? Was it advertised or was he directly approached?

Senator Chris Evans: I think Mr Griew might need to take that, because I think the department rang around the places, didn't it?

Mr Griew : The selection process for the three commissioners was run by the department, not by the agency, and it was a standard appointment process for a statutory authority, which is run under the Public Service Commissioner’s rules. It involves a selection panel involving a public service commissioner representative, a senior person, at least at the same level—in this case, a deputy secretary—and we, the panel, engaged a professional search firm to search out a panel of candidates to the selection criteria, who were subsequently shortlisted with the panel and then subsequently interviewed and referee checked prior to a recommendation being made for appointment. That was done in two stages. The same process continued through the appointment of Mr Robinson and Dr Orr, and then for the third commissioner. The panel wanted to make sure that we had the best possible candidates. We ended up with a very strong field, actually.

Senator BUSHBY: That would explain it.

Senator Chris Evans: I just want to make it clear that for both the commissioner and the deputies I accepted the selection panel’s recommendations and just endorsed those, and the same for TEQSA.

Mr Griew : As the chair of the panel, I confirm that we had finalised our deliberations before we made a recommendation to the minister, which also had to go through the Public Service Commissioner.

Senator BUSHBY: Thank you.

CHAIR: I thank the officers for attending. The committee stands adjourned until 7.20 pm.

Proceedings suspended from 18:20 to 19:2 3