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Wednesday, 5 April 2000
Page: 13375

Senator CARR (12:27 PM) —Today I would like to congratulate the government. This is unusual for me. Occasionally in politics, the actions of foolish, naive and incompetent ministers can lead in time to the correction of their mistakes and possibly, hopefully, lead to an improvement in public policy. I am here to congratulate the government for its movement towards the establishment of a new form of quality assurance agency within universities. There is a long way to go, and maybe more needs to be said about the particular details of the quality assurance agency that MCEETYA considered at its meeting last Friday, but I do think the history of this matter ought to be examined in the proper context. The appropriation legislation is one means by which these things can be done.

Specifically, what I am referring to today is the foolish action of the minister for territories, Senator Ian Macdonald, in accepting the assurances of some dubious persons with regard to the establishment of Greenwich University on Norfolk Island. In 1998 it was Senator Macdonald who accepted the claim that the establishment of Greenwich University on Norfolk Island was for the purpose of education on the island itself. This is despite the fact that the prospectus of the Greenwich University referred to their claim that they were, in practice, a global university. This is despite the fact that Greenwich University had a long history of abusing its reputation with regard to its actions in a number of states in the United States. In fact, the New Zealand government, from recollection, had rejected its overtures to seek to establish itself as a cuckoo in the nest in New Zealand. The Victorian government had said, `No, we are not going to have a bodgie outfit like this.' But this was not enough for this minister, the minister for territories, Senator Ian Macdonald, well-known expert on educational issues as he is. He says, `Of course they can establish it. There is no difficulty in that whatsoever. Hang the consequences as far as our international reputation is concerned.'

Senator Ellison —He did not say that; it was subject to approval, Senator Carr.

Senator CARR —It was subject to approval? What occurred was that the minister got advice, presumably from somebody: it is not quite clear from whom, but it would appear that it was a great educationalist like Senator Macdonald. He understood that the establishment of a global university of such dubious reputation on Norfolk Island was not going to have any consequences for the rest of our educational institutions. What a naive fool he is to accept such a proposition.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—Order! Senator Carr, you will withdraw that, thank you.

Senator CARR —I withdraw it. What I do say, though, is that one has to question the competence of this minister with regard to his administration of his responsibilities in respect of the issues that he embarked upon regarding the establishment of the Norfolk Island university.

What has come to be understood is that our international reputation for excellence in education is of critical importance to the success of the industry in this country as a whole. Increasingly, higher education operates within an international environment. This is a government that says to workers in this country, `Think of yourselves in terms of the international market. Accept second best, accept reductions in wages and conditions, and accept reductions in your standards of living because you have to operate as part of the great global economy. Don't worry too much about what the consequences are for your living standards or your family's.' But when it comes to international education, he says, `Any group of hillbillies can move in. We don't particularly mind so long as we get an assurance from those people that they will operate only on the island of Norfolk.' What an extraordinary proposition. That was the case that was put to us by the minister for territories at the Senate estimates. I am going to go into some detail on the question of his behaviour at the Senate estimates later on in this debate.

What is established now is that the reputation of Australian educational institutions internationally is critical to the maintenance of the value of Australian qualifications in terms of the people who will pass through those institutions, to the marketing of Australia internationally as a source of quality education, to it having the capacity to operate on the basis of attracting fee paying students and, in terms of it being what is now our fourth largest export industry, to the maintenance of its place within the international community. We are up against pretty stiff competition in the world. What has become increasingly apparent is that, throughout the world, other governments are prepared to actually get behind their educational industries to make sure that there is a proper quality assurance mechanism and to make sure that the people who engage in education in countries that we have to directly compete with on the global market are producing a quality product. But that is not the case in this country under the sort of incompetence we have seen from Senator Macdonald, who interposes himself—

Senator Ellison —Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. Senator Carr is misleading the Senate. He knows that that approval is not in the portfolio responsibilities of Senator Macdonald.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—There is no point of order, Minister.

Senator CARR —The minister is very sensitive about this issue because he knows that Senator Macdonald gave the direction to the Administrator at Norfolk and sought his direction to do so. He did that in December 1998.

What we do have in this process is a clear example of where one minister, who is unable to fulfil his responsibilities to the rest of the government, let alone to the rest of the country, engages in this matter in such a way as to see this university established at Norfolk, which then directly threatens the reputation of the rest of the university system in this country. We are now seeing the direct result in a whole series. This was the great bridgehead that was established in terms of undermining our reputation. There were, of course, others that followed. Senator Macdonald was the unfortunate minister who did not seek effective advice and did not seek to establish the bona fides of this crowd out at Norfolk.

Senator Ellison —He does not have to register universities; he is the minister for territories.

Senator CARR —The minister for territories, as you well know, Senator, said that under the Norfolk Island Act, which is an act of the Australian parliament, a bill was established with regard to the Greenwich University and was presented to the responsible minister, Senator Macdonald, who then gave formal approval to the bill which duly established the university on Norfolk. That approval was given before the approval of the AQF. His actions led to the establishment of that university and let that university be able to claim throughout the world that it was a properly established university.

What we have had since that time is other universities being run up the flagpole such as the University of Asia. The Department of the Treasury was quite happy to allow that so-called university to seek registration. We have seen other examples of service agreements being established by various universities to operate with a range of bodgie colleges in the private college market to the point where we are now seeing our international reputation further undermined. We are seeing examples of unethical behaviour and serious breaches with regard to the administration of our visa regime in this country. This is the behaviour of a government that is, frankly, not able to cope with the changed circumstances.

I come back to my main point, which is that the incompetence of Senator Macdonald in giving a direction to the Administrator of Norfolk Island to sign off on that piece of legislation, establishing the university on Norfolk Island, in the longer term has actually done us a favour. His incompetence, his naivety and his gullibility have led to the establishment—after serious complaints in this chamber, I might say, and by a number of the states—through the MCEETYA processes, of a new accreditation framework. Despite the fact that Minister Kemp has sought to pre-empt the process, we now see that some action has been taken by MCEETYA to seek to clean up the actions of this incompetent minister. These measures were demonstrably necessary as a result of the activities of a number of universities. I have drawn them to the attention of the Senate in the past. One university was operating out of a grog shop in Adelaide—claiming to be a university but operating out of a grog shop in Adelaide.

Senator Ellison —What was the name of the accredited university?

Senator CARR —St Clements University was seeking to claim to the rest of the country that it was a university, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was used in this way to seek to give it registration under the Trade Practices Act. As I understand it, this action taken through—

Senator Ellison —You can't register a university under the Australian Trade Practices Act.

Senator CARR —That is exactly the point. You can claim, up to this point, to be a university under the Australian Trade Practices Act, and that is exactly what was happening and why it was necessary, under the Treasury rulings, to ensure that the actions of any private company seeking to claim to the world that they were a private university have to be regulated. We have the example of The Australasian Institute, TAI, which is claiming on its web site to have formal links to Australian universities such as the University of Ballarat. Action was taken in that case to force TAI to desist from its action. We have the example of the Business Institute of Victoria, which was registered in that state. It eventually went into liquidation, but it did enormous damage to our reputation in the process of its activities. It was registered to offer courses in training, cleaning and security but was offering university courses in MBAs. What action was taken by this government on that matter? Up to this point, it would appear, very little. All we hear is that the mirror has been taken out and the government is taking a good look into it. There are numerous examples of changes occurring in the international education industry, and this government has failed to respond to those unless it is pressured to do so by bad publicity. We need to maintain the quality of Australian qualifications for our graduates, and we need to develop within the international market a clear reputation for quality on all occasions. We do not have that at the moment. That is why the action is so desperately needed.

What strikes me about these circumstances, however, is that Greenwich has yet to be resolved in a complete sense. I understand there is a committee examining whether or not that university will meet the requirements of the AQF. It is important—since Senator Ellison has been so concerned about the issues that I have pursued—to go through some of the history of this matter. The mistakes of the government and the misjudgment, mistiming and misapprehension of this minister have clearly demonstrated just how pathetic a bungler he is. We note the way in which he was clearly misled about the nature of that university and failed to take the necessary action to ensure that this government's reputation internationally, and for that matter this country's reputation, was protected. We saw how the actions of Senator Macdonald, in his imprudent approval of that university and his direction to the Administrator of Norfolk Island, indeed placed in question our reputation internationally.

In 1972 the International Institute of Advanced Studies was founded in Missouri. It changed its name in 1989 to Greenwich University. In 1990 Greenwich University established its administrative offices in Hawaii. It then sought to infiltrate New Zealand and establish a presence in that country and was rebuffed. In 1993 Greenwich University approached the Victorian government to establish itself in that state. It was rebuffed there. It then moved on to Norfolk Island and the sorry saga of this minister began. In 1998 Greenwich University was established under Norfolk Island company law. In December 1998, Greenwich University regulations were made subject to Norfolk Island law, and on 9 December 1998 the Greenwich University Act was passed by the Norfolk Island Assembly establishing Greenwich University under Australian law. It sought the approval of the minister, Senator Ian Macdonald. Senator Macdonald gave that approval to the bill, which duly established the university as, at that time, a new entry on the Australian education scene.

Senator Ellison —It had to be subject to AQF—

Senator CARR —That was not the case at the time. I want to be clear about that, Senator Ellison. Are you then claiming that it does not exist under Australian law? You would be terribly mistaken if you were. Just recently, the Acting Chief Minister of Norfolk Island requested MCEETYA to place Greenwich University on the higher education institution self-accrediting list. On 21 January 1999 Senator Macdonald did that and recognised Greenwich University courses under the Australian Qualifications Framework. That was well after the horse had bolted and well after this government had approved the establishment under law of this university. We are told that, when the committee report comes down on the question of the bona fides of the university, the Norfolk Island Assembly will re-evaluate its legislative standing. I look forward with interest to see whether or not that occurs. We find a quite serious legal issue arising here: the extent to which the incompetence of this minister has jeopardised the reputation of our international universities and the framework of this new Australian quality assurance measure.

I will come back to the point of this, given that this matter is about to close for matters of public interest to be brought on, which is that the incompetence and the foolish gullibility of this minister may well in the longer term produce some positive outcome—

Senator Ellison —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I wish the word `foolish' to be withdrawn. It is totally inappropriate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)— Minister, I do not think that it is unparliamentary language, and I think I will allow it to stand.

Debate interrupted.