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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3212

Senator TIERNEY (9.25 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the appropriation bills and to draw to the attention of the Senate a number of rather disturbing trends in the Department of Employment, Education and Training, as revealed by Estimates Committee E. I think one of the most disturbing things is the way in which this department has in seven years, over the years of Dawkinisation—now called Beazleyisation in the Herald-Sun this morning—increasingly intruded on the autonomy of universities, manipulating the directions of universities, often in quite inappropriate ways, and creating an enormous amount of paperwork, including in one instance 1.6 kilograms of paper from the University of Melbourne to fulfil the requirements of one of DEET's requests. Having collected all this enormous amount of data, it did not then have the people to process and make much sense of it. Certainly, one of the huge complaints of universities around the country is that, having gone through this whole time wasting exercise in many cases, useful information that they could use in their planning is not fed back to them.

  People in DEET seem to dream up new schemes with which they can waste the time of universities, which are there basically for two functions; that is, teaching and research. This highly intrusive department that employs 17,000 people—and what they do with their time, I think, should be thoroughly investigated—interferes in the smooth workings of our current university system.

  DEET's latest hare-brained scheme is called quality assurance. This program in the budget involves $76 million. This is not 76 million new dollars, I hasten to add. This is creamed off the top of the system and reallocated into the system on the basis of something called quality assurance. I am sure that most of the students around the nation—and certainly many of the academics—must think the whole notion of quality assurance with respect to this government and its role in the university system is a great joke, because what has happened in the huge expansion of student numbers in the last seven years is that the government has not put in the resources that are needed to back the expansion.

  Therefore, what we have occurring is the exact opposite of quality assurance. What we have is a great increase in student numbers in classes; a very severe and savage decline in the types of services and also the quality of the services provided by the libraries in the universities simply because of the lack of resources; building infrastructure running down; and research infrastructure, the basic equipment needed to support world class research, also running down.

  How do we fix this problem? Instead of putting real resources into the system, you devise something called quality assurance—sounds great!—and take the money that is already there and redistribute it to institutions that can demonstrate quality. How does one demonstrate quality in education? This is one of the most perplexing areas in the whole educational debate. We have had many researchers over about 50 years trying to work out what is quality and how to measure it. This government thinks it can do this at the drop of a hat.

  But when we question the government on how it will measure quality, it comes up with a scheme whereby each particular university measures its own quality. This is the antithesis of good research methodology because what we would have is 36 universities with 36 different measuring instruments that have a different nature and different scales and which measure different sorts of things. DEET, in its great wisdom, will then measure these things one against the other. The common analogy in research is that that is comparing apples with oranges and pears with kiwi fruit. One cannot actually do that. One cannot come up with any valid conclusion.

  The one bit of information that we do have about what will come out of all of this is that half of the universities of this country will get more resources and about half of the universities will get less. It will not be valid, because we cannot measure quality in research, and quality in teaching, and quality in other things that universities do in a very valid way. I suspect that it will be the cleverest university in terms of the way in which it fills out the forms and backs up its submission. I think we will find, yet again, the universities wasting a large sum of money to fulfil a requirement of DEET. That is not the only type of waste that is going on in the university system at the moment, and it certainly is not the only mirage that the government is trying to create about the quality of higher education in this country.

  When the government discovered that there were 50,000 more students wanting to get into universities than there were places, it said, `How are we going to fix this? Let's create a new scheme that we will call open learning'. Again, this is an approach through which the government is trying to seem like it is solving a problem. The new approach to open learning came about very hastily some nine months before the election last year. All of a sudden we discovered that, yet again, DEET was turning upside down a system that had been developing quite nicely over the previous 10 years.

  The government, in one of its better policy decisions in the 1980s, created in this nation 10 distance education centres, known as DECs, to centralise the provision of distance education. It was a great idea. But now what it is proposing to do—and, indeed, is well on the way to doing—is focus this effort on one university, with the other universities acting as satellites to Monash University.

  This program, to which in the budget the government has devoted $52 million over the 1993-95 period, has the effect of draining resources from the smaller universities into the larger universities, particularly Monash. If they want to stay in the game, they have to provide courses and units through Monash. In terms of economies of scale, using technologies such as satellites in the production of resources, in certain ways on the surface it may seem like a good idea.

  What Monash is doing, however, is saying that it can provide this service at $300 per semester unit. The bad news for the supporting institutions is that they do not get the whole $300. Monash takes an administrative fee off the top, so they only get a bit less than $200. I have taught in this area and talked to a lot of experts in the area. No-one says that these units can be taught for $300. No-one believes that those sorts of resources can deliver quality in terms of higher education.

  I suppose, at its very basic, an open learning course could be provided by sending people a sheet of paper with a reading list on it. It does not cost very much to do that. Then again, there is not much quality in the course either. In effect, there is a very direct trade-off in open learning between the money that is spent on it and the quality received. All the experts say that open learning cannot be provided for any less a cost than on-campus learning.

  What the government has created is a great charade. It says it is trying to provide for the gap of people who want to get into a university and cannot get in by creating this marvellous system called open learning. I remind members of the Senate that what it will do, at $300 a unit, is decrease the quality considerably.

  In two years of questioning DEET in the estimates committees, no-one there—and, during my visit to Monash, no-one at Monash—could come up with any plausible explanation of how to make up the gap between the $300 and the real estimate of $800 to $1,200, depending on the type of course, that it costs to run these sorts of courses. Yet again we have the government being highly intrusive on the autonomy of universities, dismantling an excellent system that has been devised over the last 10 years and creating what is second-rate education.

  Probably the most disturbing thing to come out of the estimates in terms of what the universities are doing concerns research infrastructure. Mr Dawkins turned the universities upside down by creating what he called the national unified system and abolishing the original colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology. This program was to create 36 universities in Australia. What the government has discovered all of a sudden is that it really is not prepared to devote the resources to this problem that need to be devoted to it. Therefore, it has said, `We cannot have all these institutions carrying out research. We will, in effect, recreate the binary system'.

  In 1989 the government turned the system upside down to create a unified national system. Now it is dismantling it. It is not being up-front and telling us that it is dismantling it. Through a whole lot of smokescreens, it is saying, `Institutions have a right to fulfil their own mission statements'. That is a great idea, but when we get below the smog we see that it really means that in a resource starved situation a lot of institutions will give up research because the government is tilting the way it gives money for research away from the new smaller universities and back towards what some people call the big seven. The big seven, I remind the Senate, already consume two-thirds of the research dollars that are available in this country.

  What the current system that is proposed in the budget will do over the next few years is suck resources for research out of the smaller universities—so they will go back to being basically teaching institutions—and put them into the bosom of the big seven institutions. So they have two-thirds of the money and they are going to get even more.

  This is a tragedy because people in those institutions—the new smaller universities—have turned their lives and their approach to tertiary education upside down by getting higher qualifications and moving into research; having done all that, they will find the rug pulled out from under them and they will be back to where they were before. What a highly disruptive process to go through—and it is all through the very poor planning of this government.

  Another way that the government is going to draw resources out of these smaller regional institutions is through the abolition of certain research support it put in after the abolition of the binary system—something called mechanism B, which provided the newer universities with extra research support. That will finish next year, after being in operation for only five years. All the experts in the field tell me that it will take about 20 years to make this transition properly and at least 10 in the case of most universities. Five is totally inadequate. It is again undermining a lot of the smaller regional universities with this stop-start approach.

  It is a great pity that newer universities in my state such as the University of Western Sydney—which we have visited—which is developing an excellent research track record, and the Northern Rivers campus of the University of New England, which has a whole lot of new innovative approaches to research and teaching, will have the rug pulled out from under them.

  I conclude with what I believe is the most disturbing thing of all in the whole budgetary process that we have been through with the Department of Employment, Education and Training. For the third year running, this department, which spends $11 billion of taxpayers' money and employs 17,000 people, has had the Auditor-General express considerable concern about the way in which it manages its financial affairs.

  The Auditor-General is satisfied in the case of student assistance, Abstudy and Austudy, that those payments are being made correctly and that the relevant amounts are materially correct. But for the third year in a row, universities have said that recipients were paid without valid certification. If the government is going to be running a budget of that huge amount, surely, with 17,000 people, there are some people there who can train people how to carry out their financial administration properly.

  I believe that DEET must address the concern which has been expressed for three years running very quickly to make sure in the minds of the public that public moneys are being spent correctly. Most importantly, of all the different ways I have indicated that this very intrusive department has interfered with the successful running of many universities and reduced their level of autonomy considerably, this process must be stopped and reversed. If our universities are to achieve their potential, they need autonomy and responsibility, but probably most important of all, they need the resource base to deliver real excellence in education and not the sham excellence that has been put up by many of the programs developed by DEET.