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Thursday, 26 September 2002
Page: 4961

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (10:05 AM) —Like Senator Harris, the Australian Democrats have pointed out on numerous occasions our concern with this legislation, the Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill 2002, for some of the reasons outlined in both Senator Harris's and Senator Carr's contributions. This legislation pre-empts the so-called comprehensive review of higher education, the Crossroads process that has been put in place by Minister Nelson. Also, we did not think an appropriate rationale or even an adequate rationale was put to the chamber as to why these four institutions, in particular the two non-self-accrediting institutions to which Senator Harris referred, should be given public subsidy. By that I mean private institutions getting public education money—that is, taxpayers' dollars, money that is provided by Australian taxpayers, going to these private institutions, particularly those two non-self-accrediting private institutions.

The Democrats do not resile from our earlier criticisms and our concerns but, without meaning to reflect on a vote of the Senate, we all know that the amendments put forward by me, Senator Harris and Senator Nettle went down; they were not supported in the debate on this legislation. The Democrats supported the opposition amendments in an attempt to see increased accountability mechanisms built into this legislation. We recognise and we acknowledge, having looked at these amendments—I am seeing these amendments and the House of Representatives message for the first time; indeed I do not know if anyone, apart from the government and the Labor Party, had much warning that this debate was coming on; it was a bit of a surprise to me and, through you, Chair, obviously it was a surprise to Senator Harris as well—that they represent a marginal improvement to this legislation.

When I heard Senator Carr's contribution earlier, as I was running down to the chamber expressing surprise that this was coming on, I thought, `My gosh, the government's agreed to everything. This is fantastic.' But then I realised it was Senator Carr putting on a very good performance, trying to make a marginal improvement to the bill sound like an extraordinary opposition victory.

Senator Carr —It was.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Senator Carr, that is a marginal improvement and you know it. You and I have worked on higher education policy long enough to know that this is a marginal improvement. Given that this represents a backdown, somewhat, by the Australian Labor Party, I would like Senator Carr—and the minister, if he would like to—to tell us about the amendment to which Senator Harris referred.

Senator Harris picked up on one of the key amendments that have been lost in this message from the House. Amendment (16) talked about more than the annual report, the annual reporting date and the issue of practicability, as Senator Harris pointed out. Look at the original size of this amendment. It talked about the annual report, including the following: evidence that course requirements and learning outcomes are comparable to those of a similar field of study at an Australian university; evidence of staff quality, qualifications, research output, referred research publications and citation indices; institutional governance, facilities and student services; financial status and operation; student and staff data; equity plans and outcomes for students and staff; and planning data. I do not see that reflected in the amendment that has been accepted by the House, which is something along the lines of:

The Minister must, as soon as practicable after 31 December in each year, require each eligible private institution that offers an eligible post-graduate course of study to report to the Minister, in an approved form, information regarding their operations during that year.

What information during that year will be made available? Senator Harris, let alone the issue of when the information will be made available, the issue is how much information and what information will be provided. I think that is a significant backdown by the Labor Party in that respect.

We supported the Labor Party's original amendments because, yes, we recognised there were issues of institutional governance, issues of accountability and, indeed, as referred to in that original amendment, issues to do with access and equity and that nexus between research and teaching to which I referred many times in my contributions to the debate on this legislation. I am just wondering whether someone from the government or the Labor Party would like to enlighten us as to what guarantees the Labor Party has been given by the government that the reporting requirements will be as stringent as we had originally hoped, given the fact that there is an unprecedented element in relation to this legislation—namely, money being given to those non-self-accrediting private institutions.

Generally, let us not forget that we have put four private institutions into the HEFA schedule. We have had the debate previously about Notre Dame and others, but we are now talking about four more private institutions accessing public education funds. That is the fundamental issue that the Democrats were concerned about in relation to this legislation. I was convinced that there was an element of concern from the Labor Party as well but, instead of rejecting outright this further extension of public education dollars to private institutions, they sought to amend it in a way that increased those accountability provisions. We supported that. We were disappointed they did not support our amendments but that is not the issue now.

Having said that we supported the ALP amendments, we expected them to stick to them. I recognise that Senator Carr and the shadow minister, Ms Macklin, have gained some marginal improvements through negotiations with the government but I am just wondering, really, how satisfactory these amendments are. Senator Carr, what guarantees have you been given by the government, by the minister, that you will get those stringent reporting requirements that you demanded and that you passed in a resolution of this Senate?