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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6620

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (5:02 PM) —I rise on behalf of the Australian Democrats. We will also be supporting the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002. For the information of the government but, in particular, for Senator Carr on behalf of the opposition, we will also be supporting your very florid second reading amendment.

Senator Carr —It is fair and reasonable.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —`It is fair and reasonable,' Senator Carr interjected, but I think that the government can expect nothing less. We nicknamed this one the `eat humble pie' amendment, moved by Senator Carr on behalf of the ALP. It is to be expected that he should be thanking his office and individuals, given the nature of his involvement and that of his officers in the debate on this particular issue.

In April 2000 the Commonwealth, states and territories signed off on the national protocols for higher education approval processes. These protocols were a recognition that there were significant inconsistencies among the states on accreditation and quality assurance in higher education. Quite rightly, through MCEETYA these jurisdictions recognised that the reputation of Australia's higher education sector was at risk and that it would be at risk if there were not clear standards and clear expectations in place. The Democrats are strong supporters of the intent and scope of the protocols process. We have put that on record many times before in this place. We believe the protocols are appropriate and that they are necessary to underpin confidence in the higher education sector.

In addition, we take a broader view and think that it is essential that accreditation and quality assurance are robust so that there are no weak links that international or domestic commercial higher education providers can exploit to trade on the reputation of our public higher education system as a whole. Obviously, Australia's higher education sector is renowned for its reputation. It is held in high regard not only domestically but across the world, and we would hate to think that people could exploit loopholes in the processes in order to set up institutions that are of a lesser standard. All of this is particularly pertinent in the context of GATS, whereby international providers must be treated on the same basis as domestic providers. In principle, there is nothing wrong with reputable international higher education providers setting up in Australia, provided they meet stringent accreditation criteria and they do not receive public funding. However, that does not mean that we can afford weak links or a low threshold that is less than appropriate or that `spiv' operators, if you like, can exploit. Senator Carr put on record a number of dodgy examples from the past. From my home state of South Australia, some of you may recall a `small u' university with rather curious connections to whisky distillers— Senator Carr used the expression `grog shop'. There was one example in that category but, we are happy to say, generally these have been few and far between.

The intent of this bill is to extend coverage of the national protocols to external territories, including Norfolk Island. It comes at a time, ironically, when we seem to be excising some of our external territories for the purposes of other laws such as migration legislation. But this legislation is long overdue and appropriate in terms of extending the coverage to include Norfolk Island when it comes to the protocols process.

The main consequence of this legislation is of course to override the Greenwich University Act 1998 of Norfolk Island. This will prevent Greenwich operating under Australian jurisdiction as a university. The Democrats, along with other senators in this place—and I have already acknowledged the work of Senator Carr—have an ongoing interest in the review process to examine the Norfolk Island government's request to include Greenwich University on the registers of the Australian Qualifications Framework. The departmental review that was established to examine this request recommended that Greenwich University not be listed on the AQF registers because of the standards of its courses, the quality assurance mechanisms and the academic leadership failing to meet the standards expected of Australian universities. Mr Gallagher, then First Assistant Secretary of the Higher Education Division of the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, informed the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Committee on 7 June:

The review committee found that Greenwich University bears no relation to what we generally expect of a university on the Australian mainland. It operates well below acceptable standards, even for bachelor degree awards, and it purports to award masters and doctorate degrees.

He also informed the committee that the review identified a number of deficiencies. Those deficiencies included concerns as to the qualifications and experience of staff to supervise research students, the quality of students' work, and the standard of scholarship reflected in course design and course materials. The health sciences and business panels also expressed doubts about whether the research done by staff was relevant to mainstream work in their disciplines. For example, doctoral degrees in psychology included theses entitled `Energy, anatomy and the science of intuitive diagnosis' and `Astrological birth determinants of licensed psychotherapists, psychologists and social workers'. As Mr Gallagher correctly pointed out, universities are expected to be somewhat more rigorous than astrology. Clearly, he was a Virgo.

He also told the committee about the review's serious concerns about teaching methodologies and suggested that much of what Greenwich was accepting at a doctoral standard `would not pass muster at high school'. There were also serious concerns raised about governance structures and the provision of financial data. Mr Gallagher's conclusion was:

... Greenwich University credentials totally lack academic merit. They fundamentally make a mockery of the credentials. I think it is quite clear because they have recently made an updated submission and have failed to understand how serious these deficiencies are and are clearly not taking the matter seriously.

I have recently received a number of emails and other correspondence concerning Greenwich, as I am sure many other senators in this chamber have. The gist of that correspondence has been a preference that either the Democrats and others in this place vote against the legislation or we refer this legislation to a committee. The Democrats believe that the review process has been fair and rigorous and that Greenwich University has been given an opportunity to address the concerns that have repeatedly been raised. We are satisfied, therefore, that there are no grounds for opposition to this bill or, more specifically, for this bill to be referred to an inquiry.

I think that the process that has led to this legislation coming to the Senate has been an interesting one. It has taken a long time and there are certainly outstanding questions as to the role of the federal government in allowing Greenwich University to be established and to continue operating. More importantly, I think that the work of senators, specifically of Senator Carr, in raising some of these issues at estimates committees and in the Senate more generally has indicated that Senate committee processes and estimates processes in the Senate are incredibly valuable. Often they remain one of the few avenues available to senators for detailed examination of how the government operates and what actually goes on. If this process has proved anything, it has once again affirmed the important role of the Senate committees. In an age when executive government seems to be increasingly powerful and when we increasingly deal with delegated legislation and we do not see the parliament playing the role that it could, should and has played in legislation, I think this is one example where we have actually seen a positive end. But it has certainly taken a long time to get there.

Clearly Senator Carr was always going to move a second reading amendment to this bill; I would have been surprised if he had not. As I indicated in my opening remarks, the Democrats will support the second reading amendment. It is florid but it does go to some important questions. I guess we will never know exactly how the process fell down and why there was such an abject failure in the process in 1998 when the Commonwealth accepted Norfolk Island's Greenwich University Act. I suspect it had more to do with blind faith in education markets than anything else. But, if there is anything that the minister would like to put on the record today to enlighten us on that, we would accept that. In the meantime, we are glad to see the changes being made in the Senate today.

On a final note, I would like to touch on a concern that I have raised in this place on behalf of the Democrats on a number of occasions. This has also been raised in the Democrat supplementary report to the Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee inquiry report Universities in crisis. It is our continual frustration with the tardiness with which the states and territories are implementing the national protocols. I understand that Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria have finalised their legislation to comply with the protocols. Other states, however, are making slower progress. Queensland already had legislation in place that substantially reflects the national protocol, but my home state of South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia are still working on their draft legislation. I can only speculate as to what is happening in the Northern Territory; I understand that information about progress in that Territory is hard to come by. Of course, the Commonwealth itself can hardly be accused of acting with appropriate speed. This very bill is part of the Commonwealth's own commitments to provide a legislative basis for the MCEETYA protocol, which was signed off on 2½ years ago.

I think we do have good reason to be somewhat irritated by the leisurely pace at which implementation occurs. I make a plea to the government on behalf of the Democrats and senators in this place—in fact, a request, if not a demand—to see that that process moves at a faster pace. Certainly, if it does not, it gives all of us in this chamber a good reason to question the commitment of the coalition government to education, but it also leaves us open to questioning the Labor state and territory governments as to what their commitment is in this whole process. If the minister has responses to that, we would be very keen to hear about progress. On a final note, the Democrats will support the legislation before us. We lament that it has taken this long to get some of the answers to questions that have been outstanding and also that it has taken so long to resolve this particular issue.