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Wednesday, 12 February 1986
Page: 159

Senator TEAGUE(11.40) —The Senate is debating the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission Amendment Bill. Senator Sir John Carrick, my colleague who preceded me in this debate, has expressed very clearly the concern of the Opposition to ensure that there is maximum dialogue and maximum ability for each sector of tertiary education to express its views independently, publicly and soundly. This Bill looks at the now eight-year experience of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. Currently there is expenditure of $2 billion each year to support Australia's universities and colleges of advanced education and to contribute about 20 per cent of the cost of technical and further education. Thus, all education programs after secondary schooling are encompassed in the decisions and advice brought to Government by the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. This is necessarily a very complex annual process of putting together patterns of advice. The nearly 100 higher education institutions all have views about their needs and growth. The six States and the Territories have views on priorities. There are competing claims, particularly for course development, between the three sectors-the universities, the colleges of advanced education and technical and further education.

Until this time the original 1977 Tertiary Education Commission set-up has been a very sound and helpful way of co-ordinating all these inputs into a program for the development of tertiary education in Australia. But, after eight years of experience, this Bill proposes some adjustments to overcome certain problems. As one senator who has taken a close interest in education matters over the last eight years of my time in Parliament, I am certainly aware that during this time a view has developed amongst many of the institutions and the States that the existing machinery is cumbersome, that firm decisions take a long time and that this is impeding some good developments that would provide for better tertiary education opportunities for Australians.

I am certainly aware of vice-chancellors, principals of colleges and even TAFE representatives complaining, particularly from 1982 to 1983, about the need to review the machinery for making decisions about the allocation of resources in the tertiary area. This led to the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission proposing to the present Government that the Commission should have the ability to review these decision-making processes. Understandably, we need to be very careful, as that initiative came chiefly from the Chairman of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, that he is not proposing matters too subjectively, particularly as his proposals led to the Government's appointing him to conduct the review. We must be conscious of the genuine views of those who are responsible in the States and in the institutions.

I have read carefully the Hudson report on the Review of the Structure of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission and Arrangements for Co-ordination and Consultation with States and Institutions which was brought to the Government in March of last year. Whilst I reserve judgment on some matters of detail, I believe it is a carefully written and clear document that expresses a way of overcoming the cumbersome decision-making processes that have developed in the Commonwealth tertiary education area. There is certainly a second imperative involved in the Hudson review, which led to this Bill, of building better opportunities for cross-sectoral co-operation. My colleague Senator Sir John Carrick, a former distinguished Minister for Education, has already referred to the importance of the universities and colleges co-operating and not negatively competing for resources or for new course developments. For example, in the period of the Liberal-National Party Government some university and college amalgamations were initiated, partly by reports of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission although they were taken up with real momentum by that Government, precisely because it was believed that that would lead to greater educational opportunities, and certainly there would be cost savings as well. In the spirit of those changes, however difficult they may have been for some individual academics or individual governing bodies of institutions, there were positive outcomes from those amalgamations and I believe that from time to time there does need to be a careful and thoroughgoing look at the arrangements that exist. This is the case here.

The Chairman of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission has had a thoroughgoing look at the decision-making structure in the Commission and has come forward with a sweeping, comprehensive set of recommendations most of which I welcome. I believe that they will lead to overcoming the cumbersome decision-making processes of recent years and will make for better cross-sectoral co-operation. It will also allow more flexibility to deal with some emerging educational institutions in Australia which are neither universities nor colleges of advanced education but which are now more truly described as tertiary education institutions. I refer to the post-secondary courses in Darwin, a rather isolated part of Australia, sensibly encompassing university, college of advanced education and even technical and further education courses. I refer also to the deprived areas in our cities, the western suburbs of Melbourne and the western suburbs of Sydney, where important constructive initiatives are being taken to bring courses to such geographical regions where we need to give greater opportunity. It is sensible for these additional regional initiatives to be truly tertiary in their organisations. This Bill allows the Tertiary Education Commission to deal with such bodies. I refer also to regional cities such as Whyalla in my own State of South Australia, where the adult community and school graduates need to take a range of courses in their own region. They would include some courses given by satellite lecturers or departments of universities, institutes of technology or colleges of advanced education.

I have no quarrel with the objectives of the Hudson review; nor do I quarrel with the objectives of this Bill, which are to overcome cumbersome decision-making, to maximise cross-sectoral co-operation and to give sensible flexibility in dealing with some of the new regional tertiary education institutions. Let me recall for the Senate a conference I attended convened by Professor Caro at Melbourne University in 1982. He was then Chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee. The theme of his overwhelmingly well received address to that conference and of other papers given by mostly university representatives was that they were almost drowning in a sea of bureaucracy based on the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission's processes here in Canberra and that what was needed was a freeing up, a greater genuine expression of autonomy, and simplified processes of consultation that would allow individual universities and colleges, and the technical and further education systems in the States, to have sensible and useful growth and changes that would benefit students in their areas. I am entirely sympathetic with Professor Caro's call and it is still my view that the simplifications and the shorter timetables for decisions that are contained in this Bill's amendments to the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission Act, may not go far enough in some directions.

Understandably, the Bill does not touch on some matters raised by the Hudson review concerning new course or teaching developments. Many of these matters can be handled administratively within the Commission, but I certainly welcome the comments of those who have recently expressed the view that there ought to be, within broad money and numbers constraints, the ability for institutions and a range of institutions within any one State to adopt courses more quickly without second thinking in a cumbersome Canberra bureaucracy. I would welcome these parallel changes with regard to the approval of new teaching developments. I will monitor, with all those in the Opposition-I am sure all those in the Parliament; certainly those who have preceded me in this debate- the precise outworking of these new arrangements. Along with Senator Sir John Carrick I will seek to ensure that the three sectors are able to have maximum dialogue, and indeed for each institution to have maximum ability to put views that eventually find their way to decision in the recommendations of the Commission. But I put the dilemma that I referred to earlier: If there is a cumbersome decision-making process which has led to complaints all about the country over recent years, something needs to be done about it, and that simplified situation of having one Commission with three advisory councils may mean that some precise rights of the three sectors can be vested in the Commission. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If there is to be a simplified decision-making process, some independent stepping stones on the way may be diminished.

The Opposition will be careful to see that the provisions in the Bill provide for each of the three sectors to give three-yearly independent reports that are initiated entirely by those advisory councils, that are not circumscribed by the Government of the day and that are not circumscribed by the Commission. In regard to the comments earlier today by Senator Macklin and Senator Sir John Carrick on proposed section 21A of the Bill, I note that the Bill is inadequate and needs amendment such that in the annual reporting of the three sectors the council ought to have the ability to determine its agenda as well as receive requests and requirements from the Commission. I note also that in the second sub-section of that proposed section which talks about the three-yearly review there is no limitation on the content and nature of the findings of the three advisory councils in regard to the state of the universities, of colleges or of TAFE. The only limitation is that the three-yearly reports are not to be aimed at precise financial recommendations. I believe, in the spirit of what I have said about not having one's cake and eating it too, that that limitation on the three-yearly responsibility of the three sectors is acceptable in the context of the whole theme of this change to the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. It is for that reason that when we come to the Committee stage the Opposition will support the amendments which will allow the advisory councils to determine the agenda of some of the matters on which they will advise annually, but will not seek to amend the limitation prescribed in sub-clause (3) that precise financial advice be not included in the three-yearly reports of the councils.

I further note that there may be some anxiety in each of the three sectors, that this is an untried pattern of reform for the Commission, and that some matters will need to be worked out. The Opposition will be quick to respond to representations of any frustration in sensible dialogue and independent input in to these new processes. No one has made precise representations to the Opposition saying that this Bill has inadequacies in the general thrust of the reforms it places on the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission. It would be too late and crying over spilt milk for anyone to complain in subsequent months that he or she did not have an opportunity to do so in the last 11 months since the Hudson report was given to the Government.

In conclusion let me refer to the Liberal and National parties' commitments during 1984 to the need for reviewing the structure and funding of higher education. I will not bore the Senate but just refer to our published 1984 policy statement which called for a more flexible and sensible approach to the relationships there ought to be between universities, colleges of advanced education, institutes of technology and the technical and further education sector. We believed then, and we believe now, that, in higher education in particular, there needs to be a review of the structural arrangements. These are only partly accommodated by the amending Bill that is before us. Let me read three brief paragraphs from our education statement of 1984:

We will initiate a major review of structural and funding arrangements in higher education. The brief of the reviewing body will include consideration of options which could generate reconstruction of the higher education sector to produce a coherent pattern of institutions delivering an agreed range of services and a better alignment of funding and authority between the Commonwealth and the States in the sector. The role of the private sector in the delivery of higher education services will also be reviewed.

Leading educationists are questioning whether the rationale behind the binary structure of higher education is still tenable. Originally it was intended that the role of the colleges would remain distinct from, but complementary to, that of the universities. As they have evolved, however, their roles have come to overlap markedly and each sector now delivers some educational services which, under the original concept, would be more properly carried out within the other sector.

Certain aspects of the binary system-amongst others, restriction of the colleges' access to research funding, and restriction on the granting of some post-graduate awards by colleges-artificially restrict the role, and inhibit excellence in, the college sector.

I still very much support those views. It is in the spirit of that statement, along with the precise matters I have referred to in my remarks, that the Opposition decision has been made not to oppose this Bill but to welcome the objectives of overcoming the cumbersome experience of the Canberra bureaucracy in recent years, to maximise cross-sectoral co-operation and to make for sensible flexibility.

I finally note that the Opposition is by no means complacent about tertiary education. It is not happy with the record of this Government. Expectations have been raised by this Government which have not been fulfilled. There has been very little growth in enrolments in universities and colleges. The Government's record in the TAFE sector is, I believe, abysmal. The good record of support for technical and further education of the Liberal and National Party Government has not been continued by the present Government. So whilst I support the sensible developments in the Bill before the Senate, we will continue to monitor them, and every aspect of tertiary education, because we are by no means satisfied that there are sufficient advantages for young Australian people and adults to gain enrolment in the courses they seek. It is not good enough that 30,000 Australians are turned away from enrolment in universities and colleges. We still believe that even these reforms of the Commission ought not to be set in concrete. There is still a need, as I said, to review the structure and funding of higher education. The Opposition will continue to urge that this be addressed.