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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 55

Senator CARR (1:08 PM) —I thank the chamber for its indulgence. I did not realise the second reading debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2004 was commencing quite so quickly, and I would like to offer a few words on the bill. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003, and it does perform some non-controversial functions, including variations to the maximum grant levels under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to reflect the transfer of funding for radiation oncology places. It also makes what the Commonwealth calls `minor and technical amendments' to the HES Act. Some of these amendments are far from minor and a lot more than technical in that they reflect the indecent haste and the shameful shemozzle that accompanied the passage of the legislation a year ago.

Senators will doubtless remember the more than 250 amendments to last year's bill—the one that gave us the unworkable and irrational higher education funding and regulatory regime. One hundred of those amendments were from the government. They bowed to the tokenistic demands of Independent senators in order to squeeze the legislation through the parliament in the very late hours of one night. They in fact rejected all amendments that the opposition proposed. What we had was an incoherent mess. The government were seeking to apply a bandaid treatment to a rather ramshackle edifice, and once again they are now doing what they can to repair the damage that they have inflicted. That is largely what this bill is all about—another patch-up job by the Commonwealth government, under the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, to try to fix up the mess that they have created.

Let me give one example to highlight this issue about these so-called `minor' and `technical' amendments that the bill seeks to fix—the question of the summer schools, which under the old bill would have prevented universities from doing as they have done for years, and that is to charge tuition fees for summer schools in the upcoming summer break. Because of the paucity of the funding that is provided to universities by this government, universities depend heavily on the fee income to survive—not only overseas student fees but also fees charged for various student activities such as the summer schools program. University vice-chancellors are understandably dismayed by the prospect of losing this income, and the government for its part is embarrassed at the discovery of yet another problem that has emerged from its 2003 legislation.

The opposition will be supporting this bill, simply because we do not want to see money denied to the universities. Frankly, we do enjoy the spectacle of the government having to clean up their somewhat pathetic act in this matter. But there is another reason why I support this bill, and that is that there is cause for celebration here: the opposition have had yet another victory. Once again, we are faced with a somewhat embarrassed government that have acted improperly in terms of their connivance with what would seem to be a number of somewhat dodgy elements within the higher education sector.

I can remember two years ago, when the opposition pursued the issue of Greenwich, we had the great pleasure of watching the government having to back down on that charlatan outfit on Norfolk Island—Greenwich University. We finally got rid of Greenwich and its chancellor, the Duke of Brannagh. The duke has been forced to flee back to America with his somewhat cruddy parody of a real university—and good riddance. Greenwich was trying to pass itself off as a genuine Australian university and dragging our self-respecting genuine institutions with it into yet another swamp of primordial slime. We see now that our international reputation for excellence in higher education was in fact threatened by the failure of the government to appreciate their obligations with regard to quality assurance. So it was with great satisfaction that the Labor Party were able to point out that we are the defenders of decency and quality in the higher education sector, and we will drag this government kicking and screaming to meet their responsibilities in that regard.

This bill, in its first incarnation prior to the recent election, included a clause that would have added yet another outfit of somewhat dubious repute to a list of recognised universities for the purposes of this act. That particular outfit was known as Melbourne University Private Ltd. When the opposition and minor parties saw this, alarm bells rang. We sent the bill off to a Senate committee for inquiry into this aspect of the legislation. We were confident that such an inquiry would reveal that the credentials of Melbourne University Private would be exposed as being totally inadequate, and I am pleased to be able to report to the Senate that we were right. We have been able to show that the government was negligent in its responsibility to defend Australia's reputation with regard to its university sector: the committee's report was damning of the credentials of Melbourne University Private.

Government senators made a somewhat feeble attempt to defend the government's actions and, paltry as the attempt was, it was to no avail because the government has now had to acknowledge that the emperor had no clothes. Melbourne University Private has been stripped bare in the main body of the report of the Senate committee and the government has accepted the thrust of that recommendation. Let me remind the Senate of what we found:

The Opposition members of the committee find MUPL wanting in several respects. The institution fails to achieve the standards required by the MCEETYA Protocols, particularly with regard to research profile and output. Its representatives have failed to convince Opposition senators that the institution is a bona fide stand-alone entity that truly accredits its own degrees. It has an academic staff of approximately 13 persons, many of whom are also staff members of the University of Melbourne. Its income is derived overwhelmingly from commercial activities such as consultancy and English-language teaching, rather than the provision of undergraduate and postgraduate award courses. While MUPL may have met the requirement of the Victorian Government for a minimum of three per cent of students enrolled in award courses, this hardly makes it a genuine university. Further, it is financially dependent on its parent institution.

They are, I am sure many of you would say, somewhat bland words—but behind those words there are quite serious issues. In fact, we had a somewhat farcical situation whereby Melbourne University Private presented witnesses who were strenuous in their indignant protestations that they had been subject to an unfair inquiry. In its communications to the committee after the hearing, the Executive Dean, Dr Vin Massaro, said of the inquiry's processes:

... the University believes that its integrity has been impugned... the University's commercial reputation has also suffered ...

These complaints were a response to vigorous but quite normal and expected types of questioning from the committee. Normally, universities go out of their way to be open, frank and cooperative when it comes to providing information to the Senate. It would seem, however, that Melbourne University Private had something to hide. Their protests sit a bit oddly with the extraordinarily frank admission by Melbourne University Private Ltd Director, Mr Neil O'Keefe, who told the committee:

It has never been argued by anybody, including MUPL, during the review process, that this was much more than an English language school that had a bit of a university hanging off the end of it. When it was established, those were some of the very reasons why it came under such criticism.

There are good reasons for the criticism, and it has never abated. Victorian education minister Lynn Kosky was obviously dubious about the standing and credentials of Melbourne University Private. In reviewing the entity's accreditation in 2003, Ms Kosky imposed a number of stringent conditions on Melbourne University Private that had to be met if the Victorian government was to recognise it formally as a genuine university that met the MCEETYA national protocols for university status. These conditions included `a level of research output acceptable to the minister'. Ms Kosky provided detailed specifications of what that would entail.

The truth of the matter is that while Melbourne University Private tried manfully to put an impressive gloss on its current research publications list, as submitted to the Victorian minister and to the Senate committee, even a cursory examination of this list shows just how woeful its performance actually was. Melbourne University Private Ltd had at that time just 7½ effective full-time academic staff members. This fact in itself ought to give rise to a question or two about its standing as a real university. Most universities, as I think all senators would be aware, have hundreds of academic staff across a range of disciplines. In fact the majority of staff who teach the odd hour for Melbourne University Private Ltd are employed full-time by the University of Melbourne, its so-called parent institution.

The 7.6 academic staff, according to the research report attached to the Melbourne University Private submission to the Senate committee, produced in the year 2003-04 a total of 8.7 research publications, weighted according to the DEST standard criteria. This claim, as questioning from the committee made clear, was entirely fallacious. It was put to the university's representatives that, of the 8.7 weighted publications claimed, only two successfully met the DEST criterion of having been published in referred journals and the like. The rest failed dismally. Melbourne University Private claimed, for example, two undergraduate textbooks whose latest editions had been edited by a Melbourne University Private staff member. If they had looked honestly at these publications the university would have seen that they both failed on three counts, any one of which would have been sufficient to exclude them from the list: that is, they were textbooks, which disqualifies them; they were anthologies, which excludes them; and they were revised or new editions of existing works, which alone would exclude them.

I will not subject the Senate to further details along these lines but, to summarise, almost all of the so-called research publications as listed by MUPL were duds one way or another—either that or they had been submitted to scholarly journals by MUPL academics in their capacity as staff members of other universities and not of Melbourne University Private alone. The rub was this: Victorian Minister Kosky had required of them that the university produce at least one weighted research publication per academic staff member in that year. The university had manifestly failed to meet that core criterion.

I ask myself simply this: how was it that this particular institution ended up on the list for the previous bill? Surely the DEST officers had checked this before it was submitted by the minister. I can only expect—given the professionalism of that department—that they would have told the minister. Therefore, I am not surprised now that the bill is no longer on the list. I am only surprised that it was originally on the list. If we examine further the evidence that was presented at the committee, we are entitled to also question whether or not Melbourne University Private was in fact an independent stand-alone institution, because Melbourne University Private Ltd is virtually completely dependent upon the University of Melbourne—that is, its parent institution. Its degrees were accredited by the older university and most of its staff actually worked at the established University of Melbourne.

An expert witness Professor Simon Marginson told the committee:

My sense is that—

Melbourne University Private Ltd—

does not currently fulfil our understanding of what a university is. It is an exception which is an anomaly in the system. It does not have a substantial staff in its own right, and the tactic has been to point to the University of Melbourne staff as the supporting staff structure, when in fact that is the structure of a university separate from the one Melbourne University Private purports to be, as a self accrediting institution. Yet it is fully controlled by the University of Melbourne. So it is an odd beast.

Former Victorian Premier John Cain also made a submission to the inquiry. In his evidence Mr Cain pointed out that Melbourne University Private was not established using private capital. He said:

Instead of it being a private university with three prestige, modern buildings on University Square that they would occupy ... all the buildings were built at public expense. They—

meaning the University of Melbourne—

borrowed from the National Australia Bank ... up to $22 million ... and it was a lemon. Do you know how many people from Melbourne University Private occupy those buildings? Six.

According to Mr Cain, Melbourne University Private Ltd has drained public money away from the parent institution, the University of Melbourne. The reason that only six staff occupy its grand new buildings on University Square is that in reality, following a merger with another company, Melbourne Enterprise International—also owned by the University of Melbourne—MUPL is actually little more than an English language college that does a bit of consultancy on the side.

Melbourne University Private Ltd was merged with a larger consultancy and language-teaching company when it nearly went under, three years ago. That was a rescue mission for a failed commercial venture of the University of Melbourne. Actual teaching of degree courses and actual, genuine research—those core functions of a real university—are very much a minor sideshow at Melbourne University Private. And yet this travesty of a university, this caricature, has the gall to present itself as a genuine, broadly based academic teaching and research institution. And the government has the gall to try to hoodwink the parliament into listing this institution in the Higher Education Support Act as eligible for various kinds of public money as a real university, standing alongside other Australian universities.

I have no doubt that the government's broader agenda here was to try to have Melbourne University Private put on the list, just as many other entities of dubious provenance, reputation and quality have in the past sought to be presented as genuine institutions in this country. I take the view that this is Dr Nelson's agenda as he has announced that the national standards for universities, the MCEETYA protocols, are going to be watered down. That is what the government is going to seek to do. This will allow a whole list of private, commercial business colleges and the like to acquire recognition as universities. The day that happens will be a sorry one for this country. The minister's agenda for the Australian university system may well destroy that system. Certainly it will lower our reputation for higher education excellence in the eyes of the world. Our valuable international reputation, and with it our most valuable export industry, will be compromised. In the meantime, the Senate, I trust, can rest assured that, for now, this bill before us does not seek to add a bogus institution to the recognised list.

The Senate inquiry embarrassed the government once again. We have shamed the government and exposed its disingenuous effort to sneak Melbourne University Private onto the list. That is a small but significant victory for the quality of higher education in this country. The Australian higher education system has the Labor Party to thank for that.