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Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Page: 1687

Mr IRONS (Swan) (12:33): I rise to contribute to this debate on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014. I see the member for Bendigo leaving the chamber. She must remember that in the last parliament the now opposition ripped $1.5 billion out of the higher education system. So that is just a small reminder to her about her last comments on the coalition. The purpose of the bill is to give effect to the government's decision to implement recommendations arising from the August 2013 independent review of higher education regulation undertaken by Professors Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite. The bill is focused on TEQSA in particular. After the previous six years, it is refreshing to see a government that is prepared to act swiftly on the recommendations of a review.

I can remember Kevin Rudd's fondness for reviews. After being elected in 2007, Mr Rudd commissioned dozens of reviews and studies but very rarely followed through. The Henry tax review was a case in point. The Rudd government commissioned a huge review into the nation's taxation system by their favoured economist, then Treasury secretary Ken Henry, and then decided to ignore the majority of the 138 recommendations and concentrate on just one. That one was the mining super profits tax. Even this was never properly implemented. By the time Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan had finished with the proposal, all that was left was a tax that did not raise any money. In fact, it the cost the taxpayer money in administrative costs, something only the Australian Labor Party could manage to pull off. Ken Henry must have thought, 'What a waste of time and effort,' and so must have the authors of so many other shelved reviews.

In this context, the enthusiasm with which Universities Australia has greeted this swift decision of the newly elected Minister for Education to accept fully the recommendations of the Lee Dow-Braithwaite review is perhaps not surprising. In a press release on 22 October 2013 entitled 'Government walks the talk on cutting red tape' Universities Australia states:

Today's announcement by the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, of a number of measures to reduce the regulatory and reporting burden on universities represents practical and early action by the Minister on a key government election commitment.

Chief executive Belinda Robinson goes on to say:

These commitments can take time to work through after an election but we are very pleased by the prompt attention the Minister is giving to this very important matter in accepting all eleven recommendations of the recent Review of Higher Education Regulation.

Today, a few short months after accepting the recommendations, this new government brings legislation before the House. Can you imagine how long it would have taken the Gillard-Rudd government to take action? They were too busy fighting each other and worrying about who would be the next leader. When the then minister, Kim Carr, tabled the Lee Dow-Braithwaite review on 4 August 2013, the government was in an absolute shambles. I will quote the previous minister, the Hon. Kim Carr, on his comments in regards to this review. He stated in his media release:

Over the weekend the government received the final report of a review of red tape in higher education. It makes for sobering but encouraging reading. I have decided to release it immediately, to give the sector plenty of time to consider it before a government response is formulated. This must be a partnership between us if it is to achieve its purpose.

The review was conducted by professor Kwong Lee Dow, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and professor Valerie Braithwaite, an expert on regulatory regimes from the Australian National University.

I believe they have delivered a fair, judicious and balanced appraisal of the challenges confronting higher education providers in Australia.

To be frank, they are formidable. The report speaks about the complexity of regulatory arrangements in multiple levels of government, and with multiple agencies within governments. It highlights the failure of many agencies to interact as parts of a regulatory ecosystem, choosing instead to impose requirements as though they were operating in isolation.

Importantly, professors Lee Dow and Braithwaite emphasise the pivotal role of autonomy and responsibility to the operation of our universities. These institutions are among the most trusted in our society, and yet at times the various regulatory players have been treating them as though they need to prove themselves worthy time and again.

I believe we ought to take this trust seriously, and promote the ability of universities to run their own show, in response to the needs of their own communities, industries and regions.

Far from compromising on quality, I take the view that freedom within reasonable bounds actually favours innovation, creativity and excellence.

He also went on to say that he welcomes this report on red tape, and said:

It is an informative, evidence-based response and it seeks to promote the sector's aspirations and interests, within the bounds of the public's expectations.

So, even former minister Kim Carr supports the changes that we see coming forward in this bill today.

This is a new government with a new approach. We said before the election we would cut red tape and that is what we are doing. It is as simple as that. Things have changed; we are carrying out our election commitments and getting things done. It is worth commenting on the key themes of the Lee Dow-Braithwaite Review of higher education regulation report. As stated in the review, the design of Australia's regulatory architecture in higher education ensures that only quality providers are able to enter and remain in the system and that having a qualifications framework, higher education standards and a national regulator encompasses best practice principles of regulation.

But while the review found support for a regulator, it found issues with organisational structure and duplication and the red tape/regulatory reporting requirements of the current regulator, TEQSA. Both of these issues are broader priorities for the coalition, and part of the mandate the coalition achieved at the last election. The previous government introduced many regulations. In fact, statistics I have from May 2012 put that figure at over 18,000 regulations introduced by the Rudd-Gillard governments since 2007. At that point only 86 were being repealed. This, of course, was despite the promise by Labor that they would have a one-in, one-out approach to regulation, meaning that new regulations would be matched by repealing others.

This was another broken promise but one with serious consequences for the economy. The coalition is committed to reducing red tape and has an economy-wide deregulatory agenda, because we know that red tape distracts businesses, government agencies and task forces from their functions. In the covering letter to their report the professors say:

Like those who spoke to us during the review, we have a vision for a high quality sector which strives for excellence and is competitive nationally and internationally. We believe such a system is best managed within a framework where providers themselves are predominantly responsible for maintaining and enhancing quality and supported in doing so. This will allow providers to spend more time focussing on their core business - providing quality higher education that will benefit our nation for generations to come.

This is clearly the case across the economy. As I have said before, the coalition has a commitment on deregulation. Of course regulations are required, no-one would argue against that. But there is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and 18,000 new regulations to 2012 by the Labor government is a burden being carried by the economy. The coalition government will be holding a 'repeal day' to tackle this issue and this bill also certainly makes a contribution to that goal.

In terms of the issues of organisational structure, duplication and waste, the coalition made clear its approach before the election; its commitment was to improve efficiencies, rein in organisations, improve and streamline the functioning of organisations or, and in general, improve the results for the taxpayer. The government has already been active in this regard, and in my speech on Monday I spoke in detail about the foreign minister's decision to bring AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the benefits this would pass on to the taxpayer and the region. Again, this bill continues this new approach from the government and I will go on to explain this further in more detail.

This bill is perhaps best seen through the framework of regulatory changes and functional changes. This is indeed reflected in the provision to separate the role of CEO and chief commissioner so that the CEO focuses on management and administration and the chief commissioner will focus on the regulatory decisions. As noted in the review, when TEQSA was established it was done so in an already crowded regulatory environment, and that this broader regulatory system is multilayered and diffused. As a result, the review recommends a re-focusing of TEQSA's effort towards the delivery of its most important tasks of provider registration and, of course, accreditation, with a reduction in its functions in other areas.

The focus of TEQSA has come under scrutiny, not just by the review but by many in the wider community. TEQSA has become known for excessive and heavy-handed regulation without appropriate consultation with the higher education sector. I would now like to give an example from a school in my area that I recently wrote to the minister about. The letter read:

Dear Minister,

RE: Canning College

I am writing to you to with regard to a ruling by TEQSA that has affected an income stream to the Canning College in my electorate of Swan and resulted in the virtual closure of a higher education program that was running in full cooperation with UWA and Curtin University.

Canning College is an important source of top quality international students to UWA and Curtin University. The college ran a first year Diploma of Commerce course from which graduating students were accepted into the second year by the both the higher education universities previously mentioned.

The program ran from 1999 to 2011 and provided approximately 100 international students per annum to UWA and Curtin making it a very successful higher education program.

When TEQSA was established non-university institutions that required accreditation of their courses had to be a "trading corporation" but under the WA State Education Act Canning College is not a trading corporation and cannot be one. Canning College may have been the only institution offering higher education courses to be affected by the establishment of TEQSA in this manner.

When a variation application was made to TEQSA this was disallowed.

The only solution was to operate the program as a VET program through a local TAFE college but this affected the reputation of the course to overseas students and the sustainability of the program due to differing fee structures under the auspices of TAFE.

The reduction in enrolments and mid-year enrolments has meant the diploma course is no longer viable.

The college is seeking ways to be reaccredited as a provider of higher education. I am asking if you can offer advice as to a solution to this issue that will enable the college to once again enrol international and local students in this program which contributed to Australia's international education reputation.

I look forward to your response …

And I said that I was available to meet with the minister to discuss this issue as well.

It is the desire of the minister and of the higher education community in general that, by altering TEQSA's functions, higher education institutions be able to focus more on their core work of delivering high quality teaching and research, and less on unnecessary compliance activities and regulations. This will benefit the community and the economy. That Canning College example is perfect. As the Minister for Education outlined in the first reading, the bill will remove TEQSA's quality assessment function which previously enabled TEQSA to conduct sector-wide thematic reviews of institutions or courses of study. This will support TEQSA's focus on its core functions or core business.

This is a core recommendation of the Lee Dow Braithwaite review and it is felt that other processes that were initially envisaged for TEQSA can be used for thematic reviews. For example, where TEQSA was previously asked to review teacher education, this is now being done through the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group. Other means of thematic quality assessment include parliamentary and departmental committees or professional bodies.

Secondly, functional changes to enhance TEQSA's delegation powers enable the institution to implement more efficient decision-making processes and deliver more timely decisions on applications. This should improve the appeals processes as well, as those seeking to appeal against TEQSA's decisions currently have to go through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Thirdly, TEQSA will be able to extend the period of registration and accreditation on its own initiative to improve its ability to manage this process. In line with TEQSA's refined functions and increased efficiency, the bill also provides the minister with the flexibility to appoint fewer commissioners and removes the rigid requirements to appoint full-time and part-time commissioners. Improving the organisational structure and removing some functions from TEQSA will not only benefit TEQSA itself in delivering its core functions to the higher education sector but also assist the university sector itself in its reporting requirements. Universities Australia said that a typical university must report over 50 different datasets to the Department of Education, comprising 200 reporting instances per year, as well as over 50 datasets to other departments, and that this time and effort could be better spent on the key functions of the universities: teaching, scholarship and research. I commend the bill to the House.