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Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Page: 8734

Senator SIMMS (South Australia) (13:08): I rise today to speak to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2015. I say from the outset that there is much in this bill that we believe to be good. As Senator Dastyari has said, the bill would extend HELP loans to a subset of New Zealand citizens who have been long-term residents here in Australia since they were children, providing pathways to an affordable qualification in the Australian tertiary education system for thousands. This is a welcome change from the government, who only months ago was mute on the bill which Senator Carr put forward and which would have achieved exactly the same objective. My Greens colleague Lee Rhiannon at that time spoke in support of that bill, and the Greens are in support of that change. The bill would also end duplication in the reporting requirements that now exist in both TEQSA and the PGPA Act. Although the Greens are often accused of adding so-called red or green tape, it has always been the policy of our party that we support only necessary regulation, and in the case before us today the regulation is no longer necessary, so we support schedule 5.

Perhaps one of the nicest surprises is the increase in indexation for the Australian Research Council, which would not only see an increase in funding for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years but also see funding extended out into the forward estimates. That is a welcome development. It is pleasing to see the government slowly accepting the reality that you need a well-funded university research sector to power a modern knowledge economy. Indeed, the Greens have been calling for such an investment in universities for many years, because we know that if our economy is to transition away from the 19th-century industries of coal and carbon and move into a new era of advanced manufacturing, information technology and renewable energy then we will need to put a robust public research program at its core.

We need to unwind the series of cuts into the research sector, which go back as far back as the Gillard Labor government in 2012, when the Sustainable Research Excellence grants were slashed during the MYEFO process. That was certainly a dark day for the education sector in this country, when the Gillard government came out swinging the budget axe. We need to ensure that both our research block grants and our competitive grants see an increase in overall funding. We need to stop hacking into research organisations like the CSIRO and ensure that programs like the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy are not held hostage by government, so that scientists and researchers have the program stability they need to do their jobs with confidence. And we need to ensure that thought bubbles and captain's picks like the Lomborg Consensus Centre, which went over like a lead balloon, in my home state of South Australia, are off the table and never see the light of day again.

So, while I commend the government's actions today—and the Greens do support increases in funding for the ARC—it is insufficient to the task that confronts us. We hope the government will come back with a far more comprehensive program to back up its innovation nation rhetoric. And what better way to be innovative, what better way to be flexible and agile, than to actually listen to the community and provide appropriate funding for research? It is something for the government to think about.

However, despite all the benefits that have been identified, the Greens have some reservations with this bill. It is disappointing to see the inclusion of Torrens University as a table B provider. That is a new development in education. Torrens University, as many in the chamber may know, is a part of Laureate International Universities and a private for-profit institution. That is a rare thing in our country. We do have private universities, but we do not have ones that operate purely for profit, and Torrens University is one of those. As a table B provider, Torrens would be eligible for research block grants, postgraduate scholarships and a range of other forms of public funding, and that is concerning. One has to ask, when looking at an idea like this being put on the table, whether the government has learnt nothing from the complete debacle of the VET sector.

Public funding and for-profit education simply do not mix. The evidence is in, and we know that the situation within the VET sector is not working. The incentives do not line up. The chief outcomes of the higher education sector—qualifications, training, research and teaching—are so difficult to quantify and so diverse in their qualities that the profit incentive, even with regulation, almost invariably leads to rorting. That has been the experience in the VET sector. Now we are potentially talking about opening up Pandora's box and going down this pathway in our university sector. Look at how the dodgy RTOs in the VET sector have cut every corner to maximise profit at the expense of education outcomes. What confidence does the government have that this will not happen within our university sector once we open that door and start going down that path?

The inquiry into the for-profit VET sector by the Education and Employment References Committee found that:

… expanding a demand driven entitlement to the private sector to access Commonwealth subsidies for sub-bachelor and bachelor degree programs entails unacceptable risk to the reputation of Australian higher education.

Again, if one considers what has been unfolding within the VET sector, one has to wonder why the government is contemplating going down this path. I am referring to a system that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has described as 'absolutely scandalous'. This is potentially going to be opened up to our university sector as well, if we open this Pandora's box and if we go down this path. While we acknowledge that the bill does not yet expand access to HELP loans for Torrens students, and we are not suggesting Torrens University be classed as a table A provider, has the minister actually considered the evidence as to what effect for-profit entities receiving public grants will have on the integrity of our research sector? I know Senator Dastyari says the Labor Party do not support going down that path. But the worry is that, once we open the door to this, we are on that trajectory. That is a worrying thing for the higher education sector within this country.

The question must also be asked: if the money is available to expand grants to for-profit providers, why not instead put this money back into the public system? We know our public universities have a world-class research reputation, we know they have multiple safeguards that protect the integrity of research and we know that, unlike for-profit providers, they will spend all their money on research instead of skimming stuff off to try to make private profits. Why wouldn't we be giving the money to them? We know there is quality control in place. Putting public revenue into an established public university system is a smarter and safer way to spend taxpayer money and to avoid the kind of scandal, waste and exploitation that has characterised the VET sector that was initiated by the Labor Party and continued by the Liberal Party. We need to avoid having that system expand into our universities.

If we could go back in time to before the national partnership agreement that locked in the contestability model for VET and TAFE, to before the rollout of the VET fee help to for-profit providers, and put a stop to the appalling RTO behaviour that is plaguing the VET sector, then of course we would do that. I am sure most people in this place would recognise that, if they had the time again, maybe they would not have gone down that path. Today we have an opportunity to take a different path when it comes to higher education. Today we have an opportunity to prevent that first encroachment of the private contestability logic onto our university system. We do not want to bring that kind of modus operandi into our universities. As I said from the outset, there are many things that the Greens like about this bill. We support the expansion of HELP to select New Zealand citizens, we support the regulatory adjustment to TEQSA and we support the increased funding for the ARC. But as long as this bill sets the precedent for public funding of the for-profit business model in the university sector, then we do have some concerns. I call on this chamber to support the Greens amendment to remove schedule 2.