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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 59

Senator ALLISON (1:27 PM) —The Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2004 is now the third fix-it bill this year, or the fourth if you count this bill's previous incarnation. The act is only a year old, though! We are not surprised to have a third amendment bill for the Higher Education Support Act 2003 inside a year because we knew this legislation was flawed right from the start and the problems are now becoming clearer as the sector attempts to implement the changes required by that act.

It is frustrating that the government did not listen to the criticisms made by the Democrats and other opposition parties in December last year. The Senate had the responsibility to ask what went wrong with the drafting of the original legislation and that was why the Democrats supported referring the original version of this bill to an inquiry. The manner in which the government has handled this legislation has been appalling. I would like to remind the chamber about how we found out about this particular bill prior to the election. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee informed us, in early August, that the bill would be introduced within the next few days. At the time, the government expected the opposition parties to support the passage of the bill at extremely short notice and without prior warning.

In his second reading speech on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2004, Dr Nelson said:

The bill ensures that Open Learning Australia is subject to all the necessary provisions in HESA so that FEE-HELP can be appropriately administered for OLA students, and that OLA is required to comply with the relevant quality and accountability requirements.

This bill makes further amendments to Open Learning Australia because the government could not even get the correction right the first time. The Democrats understand that several of the measures in the bill, especially the amendments that relate to summer schools, were developed in response to, and in consultation with, the sector and that some of these are essential for the conduct of important functions and activities of higher education institutions. But we have to ask why the problems were not identified sooner. In fact, if the government had not included the provisions regarding Melbourne University Private with the other non-controversial provisions of the bill, which we are now left with, the bill probably would have passed back in August. I hope the sector sees this for what it is: a deliberate attempt on the part of the government to force highly controversial matters through the parliament.

The government must accept full responsibility for the delays in the passage of this bill. The Democrats agree with and support the conclusions, recommendations and most of the content of the opposition senators' report to the inquiry into the provisions of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2004. Our supplementary report to the inquiry details our concerns with the opposition senators' report. The inquiry found conclusive evidence and numerous reasons for Melbourne University Private to be included in the table B list of providers in the Higher Education Support Act 2003. Most concerning of all was the government's apparent willingness to short-circuit the protocols and processes that uphold and protect the reputation and standing of the Australian higher education system. The opposition senators' report said:

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 ... 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.

The Democrats agree with that. It is appropriate at this time to reflect briefly on the impact the Higher Education Support Act has had on the sector to date. Already, 23 universities have announced that they will increase their HECS fees next year, most of them by the full 25 per cent across all disciplines. Disappointingly, all three South Australian universities will increase HECS by the full 25 per cent allowed in 2005. We fear this will severely impact on student choice in South Australia and in other states.

The review of indexation that the sector had staked its hopes on will now be hastily conducted within the confines of the Department of Education, Science and Training and the government, to the obvious disappointment of university students, staff and vice-chancellors alike. The Democrats' views on the indexation of university grants are on the record and well known, so I will not discuss those matters further today. The vice-chancellors raised their concern about the indexation review, along with a noticeably long list of other concerns, in a recent document entitled `Achieving the vision for Australia's universities: making Backing Australia's Future and Backing Australia's Ability work'. In this document they also call on the government to provide further funding to meet the transition costs for the implementation of the new act, which they estimate has cost each university, on average, $1.2 million. The government provided each university with just $250,000 to cover the cost of implementing the changes. It is now perfectly clear that this amount is inadequate for some universities and that they believe the ongoing cost of the increased reporting requirements will also add significant costs to their already tight budgets.

The long list of problems raised by the AVCC in this document is no surprise to the Democrats. We knew the legislation and the policy were flawed from the start and fraught with serious problems. I am sure we will be hearing a lot more from the sector about the problems with the so-called higher education reforms in the coming years and in particular next year, the first year of operation under the new act. I understand that, for some universities, the implementation process is particularly difficult and time consuming. We wish all the universities the best of luck in completing their administrative changes before the commencement of the new academic year. The Democrats are pleased that the government accepted the Democrat and ALP position to remove the Melbourne University Private provisions from the bill to allow its passage. We will support the bill. (Time expired)