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Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Page: 1695

Mr LAMING (Bowman) (13:02): I rise to proudly support the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014 and the important restructuring of TEQSA. I also commend the coalition on its fine record in tertiary education which stands in stark contrast to the last six years of Labor, where they began to find cuts to higher education to make up for significant budget deficits. We saw an end to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme. We saw Future Fellowships disappearing. In a whole range of areas, we saw nips and tucks to tertiary education that certainly did not increase efficiency but did save a few dollars for a disastrous and deteriorating budget bottom line.

Today, we meet to discuss the role of TEQSA, to support the move by the Minister for Education to strongly take up the recommendations of Professor Lee Dow from the University of Melbourne and Professor Valerie Braithwaite from the ANU who looked to focus the role of TEQSA on accreditation and building Australia's international reputation, which clearly lies at the heart of attracting international scholars to study in Australia. There is strong support from the coalition but there is also strong support right across the university sector for our reforms. For that, I thank our great universities around the country and our ministry for bringing this legislation forward so promptly.

TEQSA was a creation of the former government and understanding its role was a particular challenge for me when I had some experience with the University of Queensland's handling of medical student admissions back in 2010. At the time, we understood that TEQSA was not set up to be purely an ombudsman to receive complaints. Despite extensive communication with TEQSA, my personal experience was that I had to go to other authorities in order to fully elucidate what was happening at the University of Queensland. That information is now public but not terribly well publicly known and my objective today in sticking very close to the heart of this legislation about the restructuring of TEQSA is to throw a little light on my experiences working with them in an attempt to better understand the actions of the University of Queensland between 2010 and 2012. I want to start, and finish really, on a personal note.

Thousands of Australian families like millions of aspirational families around the world dream of getting their kids into university. For many of us in this chamber, it just happens naturally. It starts by going to a great school, by applying to a public university and by getting a great tertiary education. But in fact for many of us here, it is a massive struggle. It was a struggle for my mum and dad. I do know that politicians tend to clutch at stories to emphasise just how tough their upbringing was. My dad moved to Papua New Guinea to take up better paying work than working as a wool classer and, as a result, my mum had to give up her job as a stenographer in the Supreme Court, in the hope of raising enough money to buy a home outside of Tasmania and send me to a 'good school', as it was referred to in those days. In the end, we did not have the money. I got a small scholarship. It was not enough and we had to, effectively, haggle with the headmaster of what is now the Anglican Church Grammar School to get a full scholarship so I could attend. For five years of my life, I felt that I owed everything to the school that paid for me to go through. The only objective going through a school like that was to get a start and to get into university.

So I do feel that I know firsthand just how important the role of an organisation like TEQSA is and just how important it is for many aspiring parents to know that hard work, diligence and rewarding merit are so important. Few things are more important to us than that gateway, so the next generation can hopefully live a little more comfortably than the current working generation. We expect very much from our universities and in particular my home University of Queensland, which receives around $1 billion of public funds every year.

There are a couple of ways of getting into the Degree of Medicine in Queensland. One is a school leaving two-year accelerated program which guarantees you entry if you are a high-flyer. There is a second route where you have to have an exceptionally high GPA from a previous course and then sit the much-feared GAMSAT test. Obviously, the former path for many is preferred. It is a two-year accelerated program with guaranteed entry. Competition for that is fierce and the structure of enrolment and entry is relatively unique to the University of Queensland.

Missing out should not be the end of the world. We have great universities all around this country. If you cannot get into one university, you should be able to have a crack at another. You should be able to consider another course. You should be able to defer for a year, build up your entry scores, perform in other courses and transfer across. Missing out on entry to medicine should not be the end of the world. But for someone, missing out did matter and this became the focus of a significant investigation, run predominantly by the Courier Mail, our local newspaper. Only after repeated requests by a number of people did the CMC pick up this cause and decide to appoint a six-person panel to investigate the events at the University of Queensland a year after the fact—and justice delayed, really, in my belief, was a case of justice denied. Missing out should not be something for which you can turn to first-degree relatives to fix, but as the official suspected misconduct report conducted by the CMC points out, that is precisely what happened.

I rise today because we went directly to TEQSA in the hope that they could help with elucidating these events and that did not occur. I appreciate that it was very difficult for TEQSA. Today I will table the correspondence that I wrote to TEQSA in an effort to get to the bottom of the events. I take this opportunity to very briefly seek your indulgence, Deputy Speaker, to quickly have recorded in Hansard the particular events in late 2010, on Christmas Eve, when they began to precipitate. At the time, it was clear that the vice-chancellor's daughter had not received the required score. This set off a series and sequence of events, pulling otherwise innocent people into something that was quite obviously wrong. This was of great concern to me. It was something I had raised with TEQSA. I also attempted to raise it with the university. My correspondence was not responded to by the Dean of Medicine. The correspondence was sent to an operations manager and I received a very summary response, which was, effectively, a refusal to engage in any form of clarification or correspondence about the matter. Let us make sure today that the truth is never lost and that, if we do set up to reform TEQSA, we make sure these kinds of arrangements are covered by both this and future reforms to the bill.

It is important that today, when we talk about reforming TEQSA and changing its structure, focusing it more on the areas that really matter, we also learn from past events. Back in 2010 of course, TEQSA was a relatively new entity. It did have a much broader remit and you can understand why people like me, or others in the general public, would go to TEQSA to seek assistance, and we know that they did their very best to do that. The reforms that we make today with this bill are important because it further focuses on TEQSA, not on some of the broader roles with which it was initially commissioned. They have removed some of the elements of quality assessment and we are allowing the agency now to no longer be focused on sector-wide and thematic reviews. That is part of this legislation today, which I commend. Instead, it will be able to focus more on the registering of providers and the accrediting of courses.

Back in 2010, that was not the case. We now have details on record of phone conversations between senior officials of the University of Queensland, discussing the particular academic scores of one individual who was a first-degree relative. This then led to a second series of communications between not just the vice-chancellors but also the dean of medicine, the acting vice-chancellor, none of whom I name today. What concerns me was then how this forced admission occurred. At these sorts of levels, we want to make sure that risk management is a key role of TEQSA. That is part of their job. The risk to Australia's reputation is significant if instances like these do occur. What we do know is that there were SMSs sent between these individuals which were not raised in the initial investigation performed by Carmody, and the report was both privileged and not released. At this point, we were at least 12 months down the track and it was virtually impossible to achieve a just outcome. We know that there were conversations within the family about whether the individual concerned should remain at university and in the course, but they elected to stay in the course.

My other concern, and this will also be of interest if we are looking at risk management and the role of TEQSA, is that then subsequently innocent people were pulled into this process—again, I do not name them but they include the OPSSSE director and other individuals—who, as they say, were aware of the forced offer to the V-C's daughter, knew that it sounded dodgy, and that it had come from much higher up and that they did not have any alternative other than to concede and to proceed as they were directed. There was evidence of emails between these officers and vice-chancellors, including an email which said, 'There has been no discussion by me with the vice-chancellor and my decision with respect to all of these cases has been taken in my role as an acting vice-chancellor.' Again, that is a blatant mistruth compared to what had happened on previous days. We know there were subsequent conversations between the acting registrar and the OPSSSE director, where the latter was urged not to do anything about it because it would force him into a position where he may have to acknowledge that the action he had authorised was wrong and inferred it would be a career-limiting move. She urged me to proceed with the arrangement of the forced offer.

This is obviously a compelling reading that I do not have time to place into Hansard, but there must be lessons from it. The lessons have to be more than simply saying, 'We are putting in risk management procedures for the future.' There has to be more accountability from the senate of these universities and the members of the senate. This needs to be a concern for TEQSA whenever we are reviewing its functionalities.

In the end, this admission could not be defended by academic merit. To me that is a great tragedy. I know that there are at least 334 people more worthy of studying this great course than the forced admission. To everyone of those families we owe an apology, not a delay, and certainly not the burying of these reports which have been, from my assessment, what the university has done up until now.

I rise obviously because I love my university. I rise because I love the Department of Medicine, where I studied for six years of my life. I rise because it was impossible to use the very important federal functionalities to get to the bottom of this event. I rise because the people of Queensland expect far better of their public institutions.

I do know, although I cannot fully substantiate it, that a sixth-year Queensland university medical student doing a Northern Territory medical term suffered considerable emotional trauma because she attempted to uncover what happened at this university. I heard from that supervisor interstate that he received a phone call from the university attempting to cancel her placement and write an unfavourable review of her performance while in the Northern Territory. If this treatment of a medical student was simply because she wanted to expose the truth, then to both her and her family—if this is substantiated—I also want to apologise.

Lastly, a number of people have paid incredible prices within the University of Queensland, which will never be made public and I will not be making it public today. There were people who worked in the audit department absolutely clear that this kind of thing, were it to become known to bodies like TEQSA or to the general public, would be of enormous concern. I understand there has been a restructure of that unit within the University of Queensland and that the prime whistleblower—if I can use that term—lost his job in that process and became unemployed. I think it is utterly repugnant that a person who attempts to uncover what is a basic truth should be handled in such a way. While I cannot confirm it, that is my understanding of what occurred.

This issue was very difficult to raise with other individuals or with TEQSA directly. So I will table the letter that I wrote to TEQSA. The content of it is almost identical to what was raised directly with the University of Queensland. At the time, retirements of those responsible were announced and that was a completely unsatisfactory response. The dates were of their own choosing and they took all of their entitlements with them. Their salaries were between half a million and a million dollars a year. That was patently inadequate. Only when forced by the CMC were those dates changed. The good staff at the University of Queensland never knew what had occurred. When these retirements were announced, there was no reason given other than people were 'turning 65'.

We can do so much better than this by making sure it can never happen again, not for the reasons mentioned around just how important getting fair entry into a university is, but for the particular and sometimes irrational attachment that many families place on getting into medicine, which made this one an extremely sensitive matter. I cannot overstate just what this has done to the reputation of my university. We rely upon TEQSA to maximise our international reputation. If that is undermined in our own city then that is a great tragedy. It became almost impossible for the people in the know to say or do anything. I am convinced that there were unconscionable delays in this process and that the thorough internal report that was commissioned by the Senate was never released on the most spurious of grounds—that people who contributed to the report were told that it would not be made public. There were many opportunities to make the findings of that report public without releasing any of their contributions. Let us hope it never happens again. We have the assurance that it will not. I wish the University of Queensland the best. I thank Des Houghton from TheCourier Mail. I wish the new Vice Chancellor every success.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Is the member seeking leave to have the document tabled?

Mr LAMING: Yes, I am.

Leave granted.

Mr LAMING: I thank the House.