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Economics Legislation Committee
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency

Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency


CHAIR: I welcome Dr Nicoll and officers from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

Senator MASON: Welcome, Dr Nicoll. The chair tells me that I have only 20 minutes. So I will be as quick as I can and I would appreciate any assistance you could give me there. I think it is fair to say, Dr Nicoll, that there is still disquiet in the sector about the extent of regulatory attention and information gathering by TEQSA. There is an article in the Australian from 5 September 2012 titled 'Defiant regulator rejects claims of "smothering"'. It said:

TEQSA has scaled back the information it wants providers to file by end-November.

What sort of information is TEQSA seeking by the end of November?

Dr Nicoll : Thank you for the question. If I go back to your introduction I think it is fair to say that any regulator in any sector is not going to be the most popular creature—

Senator MASON: I suspect that is probably right.

Dr Nicoll : Whilst there is still some noise in the sector I think that noise is decreasing by the week. We have been in active engagement with the higher education sector and the peak bodies. We have been out and about talking to academics, academic boards, CEOs and vice chancellors to explain what we are doing in a way that makes people understand and takes the fear out of what we are going to do and what we are doing right now.

As regards your question about data, we initially put out a consultation paper, and at that point we could not get access to data from the DIISRTE higher education collection. As you would be aware, the minister is putting through an amendment that will, hopefully, pass in the weeks to come, which relates to the access TEQSA can have to data that the department collects.

Senator Chris Evans: And we look forward to your support for that bill.

Senator MASON: As long as there are no privacy issues, of course. We always have to look at that.

Dr Nicoll : I would certainly encourage the passage of that bill, because it will give TEQSA the capacity to collect the information that another Commonwealth agency, the department, already has from a large number of providers.

Senator MASON: To save duplication.

Dr Nicoll : Exactly. We are looking at every opportunity to reduce duplication. If we can get access to data in other ways, whether directly from the department or through other sources, it is just common sense, and we will do what we can to access that. There are differences to the initial proposal we put out; we have reduced the request considerably. Now, most of the data we were asking of the universities we are not asking of them because, hopefully, we will be able to collect it directly from the department collection.

Senator MASON: And that is what this refers to. You are saying you will not seek this information because you believe you are going to have access to the information in the future?

Dr Nicoll : If this bill gets through this amendment to HESA.

Senator Chris Evans: Basically, it is designed to try to share the information they have to provide, which is of benefit to the universities, and currently Dr Nicoll and TEQSA are prevented from accessing the department's stuff. There has also been an attempt to try to agree which bits of information are essential and which are not, and to try to rationalise both our approaches so that there are fewer duplication and paperwork requirements for the universities. I think that has been quite a useful process.

Dr Nicoll : It is worth you knowing that there is a real initiative, which has buy-in from the peak bodies, between the department and TEQSA and the peak bodies to talk about information collection so that, rather than through a process of accretion and through the development of different agencies, there is a conversation where a rational approach can be taken and, hopefully, the development of a national higher education collection. TEQSA does not want to collect the data itself. If we can get it from another source—that is, a credible source that links directly to the department—we would welcome that. The other part of that is that there are some higher ed providers that do not currently give data to the department. We will have to get those data directly from those providers for a period of time. Ultimately it would be fantastic if the department could collect those data on our behalf. We would be very happy for that to occur and we think there are ways that that can occur so that we get a total picture of higher education in Australia, not just a view that is about the universities. There has never been a real collection in regard to private higher education providers at a national level. That is what TEQSA would advocate and I think that the conversations we have had and the department has had with the peak bodies would suggest they would strongly support that.

Senator MASON: This is in effect a complaints process, which might be slightly overstating it. What would happen if a provider writes to you pointing out some reporting requirement and putting forward an argument that it is not necessary in their opinion for reasons A, B and C to do a certain thing? Do you consider those suggestions? Do you take them seriously?

Dr Nicoll : All of them—

Senator MASON: So it is not ad hoc, you have a process within the office—

Dr Nicoll : In relation to the initial consultation that we ran in relation to data, the provider information request, we called on providers to give us feedback. We took all of those responses into consideration. We did not respond to each of them because this was a call for input, but we did write out to all those providers after the event as part of the release of the final PIR, the provider information request, for this year and we explained that we had taken on board a number of the suggestions that had been made. We have reduced the data requirement considerably. The universities in particular are in a position where they are going to have to give only a very small amount of additional data to that which is already residing with DIISRTE.

Senator MASON: Within the department. It is heartening to hear. I will be honest, I hear another point of view as well. And TEQSA has on occasions changed its practices in accord with complaints and so forth?

Dr Nicoll : Absolutely. I will give you an example in relation to CRICOS. We took over the full Commonwealth—

Senator MASON: I am going to ask questions about CRICOS, but go ahead.

Dr Nicoll : What an excellent segue, Senator. We took over the full Commonwealth delegated responsibilities on 1 July. When we initially set that up we had a uniform approach in terms of the forms for one aspect of CRICOS, which is adding a new course and we had asked of both self-accrediting providers and other providers the same information. Part of the principle that underpinned that was that we do want to be a national regulator and where possible have a level playing field in terms of the regulatory approach, except that we have to apply risk. The issue is that with self-accrediting providers when we thought about it very carefully we decided that the risk associated with self-accrediting providers in terms of adding new courses to CRICOS was minimal, they should have had a process in place within the institution already to make decisions about the appropriateness of that course. Therefore we could reduce considerably the process that we had in place for those providers. We got submissions from the universities in particular about that. We responded to it, and now they have a process which is considerably simplified from that of non-self-accrediting providers.

Senator MASON: Are they happier now? I like happy people.

Dr Nicoll : Much happier, as they would be if they were not going to have to go through all of the accountability that we ask of those providers that do not have in place all of the academic processes for quality that might be associated with self-accreditation.

Senator MASON: With self-accrediting institutions and CRICOS, I am informed that it took the state based authorities perhaps only one or two weeks but it was taking TEQSA a lot longer. Have you reduced your time lines to somewhere approaching that?

Dr Nicoll : In relation to simple CRICOS matters we have now in place—since 9 August—the capacity to automate this. So I can tell you exactly how long it takes. It takes between five and 10 days for simple CRICOS matters. It is important to note that, when a provider puts the information in the form for an application for adding a new course or a variety of activities, if they put it in and they are transgressing the national code or the ESOS Act we will send it back to them.

In some of the cases that have received some media attention the provider had not actually got the forms right and had not met the requirements of the national code, and so they had to go back to the provider. When we have the complete form in a format that is appropriate it will take us five to 10 days for simple matters. For a re-registration under CRICOS, it will clearly take us much longer than that. TEQSA have met all of our statutory time frames in the 10 months that TEQSA have existed. We have not exceeded any of the statutory time frames that are allowed to us.

Senator MASON: I accept that.

Dr Nicoll : And we are doing everything we can to reduce the time that it takes us to manage the processes that we have got statutory responsibility to undertake.

Senator Chris Evans: I would just make the point, Senator, that there is a difference between light touch and no touch.

Senator MASON: I understand that.

Senator Chris Evans: The TEQSA have responsibility for a light touch but, when something is not right, they are required to touch it and therefore applications may well be delayed—which is, I think, what Dr Nicoll is pointing out. As I say, with a couple of cases where TEQSA have been criticised, if one looks into the actual deal—

Senator MASON: It is a bit more complicated.

Senator Chris Evans: Yes, it is a bit more complex. In fact, one of them was just plain wrong.

CHAIR: Thank you, Minister. Senator Cameron?

Senator MASON: Chair, you said 20 minutes and that is up to 6.35. You did say 20 minutes—and that is up to 6.35. I wrote it down.

CHAIR: And other senators have indicated that they also want to ask questions. Senator Cameron?

Senator CAMERON: I will be brief. Dr Nicoll, the Liberal-National governments in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia embarked on what I am describing as economic vandalism against the TAFE system. It is an assault on productivity and the capacity for workers in regional areas to get social advancement.

Senator Chris Evans: Senator, if you are talking about TAFE, you have got the wrong regulator.

Senator CAMERON: No, I have not, actually. Just bear with me.

Senator Chris Evans: Sorry, I was going to say that ASQA is on next.

Senator CAMERON: Just bear with me and if you are right and I am wrong, I will give someone else a go. TEQSA, as I understand it, do thematic reviews and audits of universities.

Dr Nicoll : We do a range of things. We will be doing thematic reviews. We have announced two thematic reviews that are going to take up our time over the coming months certainly.

Senator CAMERON: Do you do consultations with universities?

Dr Nicoll : We consult with all higher ed providers.

Senator CAMERON: Does that include those universities that have the TAFE system as part of the university?

Dr Nicoll : Definitely.

Senator CAMERON: So I think I am okay here, Minister.

Senator Chris Evans: Sorry, I did not mean to interrupt; I thought you were getting wound up and I thought I would get in early. I apologise; I was wrong.

Senator CAMERON: I do not get wound up. With hundreds of millions of dollars getting ripped out of the TAFE system and those universities that are associated with the TAFE system, that has huge implications, in my view, for the delivery of the quality assurance issues that you are responsible for. Are you going to have a look at the implications of this economic vandalism by these Liberal-National governments on the TAFE system and the implications it would have for quality assurance in the university system?

Dr Nicoll : What TEQSA will do is look at individual providers to ensure that their quality and their performance continue to meet the threshold standards which is the legislative instrument which is part of what we have to regulate against. I did write to all providers; I do not have the exact date in my head, but it must have been in September or August. In this letter I reminded the CEOs and the vice-chancellors of all of our 173 providers that they had a responsibility to notify TEQSA of material changes to their circumstances, and those include possible impacts on their financial status. I gave examples in the letter of the impacts. I reminded providers that particularly in light of the impact on possibly the international market, the changes to funding in a number of states and territories in regard to vocational education and training where we have a number of providers that are multi-sector providers and so there is the possibility for an impact on dual-sector providers and some of their VET funding is compromised, we are keen to ensure that that will not have any consequential impact on the quality of their higher education provision. In that letter I reminded all CEOs and vice-chancellors that they need to be notifying TEQSA if they felt that the impact of any of the changes in their circumstances, financial or otherwise, would threaten in any way their capacity to meet the threshold standards and that they had a responsibility to notify TEQSA. We are concerned about any impact—whether it is financial, whether it goes to the changing nature of the student body, whether it is the nature of delivery—and it is an issue that we will look at in the process of our regulatory activity.

Senator CAMERON: Could you provide a copy of that letter to the committee?

Dr Nicoll : Yes, I am happy to.

Senator CAMERON: Roughly when was the letter sent?

Dr Nicoll : It was after the announcements about the TAFE cuts.

Senator CAMERON: You may not have had responses yet, because some of the universities will still be trying to analyse the implications.

Dr Nicoll : It may be that I do not expect responses unless they feel—and it is their call—that there is such a material change in their circumstances that it will mean an impact on their capacity to meet the threshold standards. If they feel that the impact of any event is not going to threaten that then I would not expect to hear about it.

Senator CAMERON: That is good and I am glad I was on the money in terms of this issue.

Senator Chris Evans: I am going to suffer for this for many years to come. I have apologised, because I know I am going to suffer for this for many years to come.

Senator CAMERON: No, you will not, Minister. Dr Nicoll, can I give you one piece of advice. You have been here for ten months, if the noise gets too loud put a pair of earmuffs on.

Dr Nicoll : Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to pick up on free online courses with the delightful title of MOOCs—massively open online classes. I am interested in how TEQSA is interacting with this development that seems to be moving ahead quite quickly, particularly with a number of our leading universities becoming involved. What sort of oversight could TEQSA apply regarding the reliability and quality of course assessments for these types of courses being run in Australia?

Dr Nicoll : TEQSA is very aware of the advent of MOOCs and we are very aware of the fact that a number of our universities are actively engaging. From an educational policy point of view, I believe it is a wonderful initiative because it is about lifelong learning. Where universities are opening up their courses free of charge to the broader community, this is an extraordinary opportunity. That is an aspect of MOOCs that really has not been applauded enough. It is about lifelong learning and opening up opportunities for the broader community.

TEQSA is very concerned about any aspect of a provider's activity that may end up in a breach of threshold standards, a diminution of the quality of provision. The approach that is being taken at the moment by universities signing up to MOOCs which are free of charge, in most cases if not all in Australia there is no credential offered at the end other than a statement of completion. They are offering programs not degrees, so they are offering subjects not necessarily a whole degree program. If they were then TEQSA would be interested. The fact that they are offering this at the moment is of interest to TEQSA, but TEQSA will keep a watching brief on it.

There has been some commentary in the media that TEQSA's regulatory framework will inhibit the capacity of providers to engage in these sorts of innovative practices. Far from it, TEQSA will not inhibit the capacity of providers to engage in MOOCs where such engagement does not result in a credential and where the providers are not charging for it. The providers are very welcome to do that. Where we will start to get involved is if there is any credential associated with it that could be named on the AQF. If that were to occur then clearly we would have a different sort of interest and we would be interested in the assessment practices being used and how a provider would maintain academic integrity and appropriate assessment practices where a provider may have thousands and thousands of students involved. But it has not gone to there yet. We will be watching and we are actively thinking about it. We believe that the regulatory framework is flexible enough to accommodate the innovativeness of providers to engage in these.

Senator RHIANNON: Have any of the participating universities engaged with TEQSA? Have they initiated contact with you about these developments?

Dr Nicoll : Yes, I have had conversations with a number of deputy vice-chancellors and vice-chancellors from universities about it. I have responded, as have the other commissioners and my staff.

Senator RHIANNON: Going back to your earlier answer, do I take from that that none of the universities in Australia as yet are offering credits for these programs?

Dr Nicoll : I am not aware that they are. In fact, the philosophy of it to this point is that the MOOCs are free and they do not have a credential associated with them. There are ways that these can develop and may end up developing. That is where TEQSA will be watching and interested to see where the developments occur. We will have to think about how we assess those within the regulatory framework.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering how quickly this is moving, I think it would be a fair assumption that credits being awarded and moving from subjects to courses is where this is going—

Dr Nicoll : I do not think you can make that assumption.

Senator Chris Evans: It is a bit complicated. If you think about it, Stanford putting all of its content online is one thing, but awarding Stanford degrees to millions of people at low cost is not good for the brand. It is quite a big step. I am not saying you are not right and that there are opportunities and developments that we cannot predict, but if you think about it, the quality of the material may well be first-class but the next step to awarding degrees is a big step. I would also point out that, from what I have seen, completion rates on these things so far are very poor. People dip in, which is great. It is a democratisation of knowledge in some ways, if you like, but they might dip in for a particular part of the course or what have you.

Senator CAMERON: Are you saying it would devalue the status of the university?

Senator Chris Evans: No, I am just saying that, from a university's point of view, if you think about somewhere like Stanford, they have a brand that they would not want to dilute.

Senator RHIANNON: I take your point on that, Minister, but where I was taking it is that this is becoming so attractive and it could mean that some of these courses are charged for online. Going back to my question, considering this is all moving so quickly, is it timely to be looking at issues surrounding course credits that could be given for online courses and how that would interact with credits from Australian courses before it moves ahead so quickly? Do you have capacity? Do you think we have to be ready for these developments and anticipate them?

Dr Nicoll : TEQSA is certainly thinking about this and developing approaches, should we go down that line. We will probably, in the months to come, put out some guidelines to providers in relation to MOOCs that signal where we are happy for them to go and where there may be issues if they were to take them to a particular end.

Senator Chris Evans: The broader answer is that the government takes this very seriously. One of the things I have done is have the department sponsor a symposium on Monday next week which will look to engage with the sector about what these developments mean, what opportunities there are and what other issues are raised. These obviously have huge implications for international education and for what the Commonwealth funds in terms of capital expenditure et cetera. This is an important debate.

Senator RHIANNON: It is huge.

Senator Chris Evans: I might make the point that there have been dawns of this type before, when everyone was going to do education online, and, while online education has found a niche market, the reality is that people are still human beings and they like to have personal contact. If you go to any university, go into a library or go into a hub type situation, there are hundreds and thousands of students who are relating and looking for something else from university education. I just want to balance some of the revolution with the reality. Quite frankly, I and anyone else really do not know where this will end, but we do have to engage with it—TEQSA has to engage, as Dr Nicoll implied, and the government has to engage. One of the things we are doing is trying to engage on Monday with some of the sector about those things.

Dr Nicoll : I will be attending that symposium to hear what the sector has to say.

Senator RHIANNON: Regarding the point that you raised in your previous answer, I think you were setting out that you would be looking at guidelines. When do you anticipate that would be publicly available?

Dr Nicoll : I cannot give you a date.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the process that you will go through?

Dr Nicoll : We have developed something, but we will look at when we will release that. I cannot give you a date for that.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the process—engaging with the sector?

Dr Nicoll : We will be putting something up on our website and we will probably bring it to the attention of all of the providers.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much.

Senator Chris Evans: Mr Chairman, could I correct something I said earlier in response to Senator Rhiannon when we had the debate about questions on notice and correspondence to her. I need to apologise. I indicated to the senator that I had written to her, but I am concerned that it was not dated. The reason it was not stated is that I had not signed it and it was in my in-tray. That explains why it was not dated and why I misled you in saying that I sent it to you. It has now been found in my in-tray and I will sign it this evening. I do apologise for misleading you in the sense that it has not gone yet.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, and then I will receive it.

Senator MASON: I want to say something. Mr Chairman, I have been pretty fair today. As the minister well knows, if I am not treated well I can be quite aggressive. The minister has seen that. All I ask for is fair treatment. If I do not get it, then I pipe up. All right?

CHAIR: I do not know what you are saying.

Senator CAMERON: Mr Chairman, this is a point of order: that is a threat to the chair and that is unacceptable.

Senator MASON: It is not a threat to the chair.

CHAIR: There is no point of order. I will handle this. Senator Mason, you directed that comment at me. You have had an extraordinarily large amount of time today—hours and hours and hours. I think government senators would have had no more than half an hour all day. Greens senators have had no more than half an hour all day. All other time has gone to opposition senators. You have had more than a fair go.

Senator MASON: Let me answer that. I am the lead opposition senator; that is a fact. This discussion was due to go for 45 minutes and I was cut off after 10; that is also a fact. I was told I had 20; that is also a fact. They are all facts. All I want is to be dealt with fairly.

CHAIR: You will be treated no differently at all.

Senator MASON: Hold on, I am not—

CHAIR: I am happy to waste another 15 minutes, mate!

Senator MASON: I want to be dealt with fairly.

CHAIR: You have been dealt with fairly. You will continue to be dealt with fairly.

Senator MASON: Did you tell—

CHAIR: Order! I am speaking.

Senator MASON: Point of order: did you tell me I had 20 minutes?

Senator CAMERON: That is not a point of order.

CHAIR: Senator Mason, what I said was this: I would attempt to give you 20 minutes.

Senator MASON: So I had 20.

CHAIR: I said I would attempt to give you 20 minutes. Other senators indicated they also wanted to ask questions after that announcement was made. When that occurs, I try to ensure that all senators get a fair go. As I said, your party has had 90 per cent of the time here today.

Senator MASON: That is not right.

CHAIR: It is true.

Senator MASON: No, that is not right.

CHAIR: If you don't like it, bad luck. You can just waste another three minutes.

Senator MASON: That is not right. I am the lead opposition senator. All we ask for is at least half the time, and that is fair. That is absolutely fair, Mr Chairman. I have never been on a committee in 13 years where that has not happened. Minister, that is right, isn't it? The opposition is always entitled to at least—

Senator Chris Evans: Can I just—

CHAIR: I do not know what—

Senator MASON: Come on. You are saying that the opposition is not entitled to at least half the time? That is outrageous.

Senator Chris Evans: Can I make the intervention that I think Senator Bishop has done a good job in trying to share the available time in what I know is a tight time frame. It is also the case, Senator Mason, that you have been as cooperative as you can be. I just think that we have limited time, so we would be best moving on, because at the moment we are wasting time senators get to ask questions of TEQSA or ASQA. I know we are under tight time frames and I think we would be best using what time we can to ask the witnesses questions.

Senator CAMERON: It is nearly dinner time. You can have a Bex and a good lie down.

Senator MASON: Senator Cameron, that is not helpful.

CHAIR: I do not resile from my comments.

Senator MASON: I do not resile either, Chair, on behalf of the opposition.

CHAIR: You can complain as much as you like.

Senator MASON: Two can play at this game. The minister knows that; I have been here long enough to know that.

CHAIR: Go. You have two minutes left.

Senator MASON: Do you understand that?

CHAIR: I couldn't care less. I have sat here all day. You have had 90 per cent of the time.

Senator MASON: All right. That is fine. It is on the record. I take note of it and God help you if you lose the next election. God help you.

Senator CAMERON: More threats.

Senator RHIANNON: It is the reverse and usually worse. That is what we get, Senator Mason, and you know that.

Senator MASON: All I want is half the time, Senator Rhiannon. Do you think that is inappropriate?

Senator CAMERON: Senator Mason, you should not be a bully.

Senator MASON: Oh, come on. How does TEQSA define risk, Dr Nicoll?

Dr Nicoll : We define risk in terms of the threshold standards. What is the chance, the risk, of a provider breaching the threshold standards? All of the risk indicators in our risk framework are directly connected to the threshold standards. So it is about risk. If you were to look at it at a higher level, it is about risk to the student experience, it is about the risk of provider collapse and it is about the risk of damage to Australia's national or international reputation in higher education.

Senator MASON: Sure, but how do you quantify that? I take your point, but when you say risk, there is a risk of an asteroid falling tonight. There is a risk of that, but it clearly is not high. How do you quantify?

Dr Nicoll : Whilst we use indicators which have a quantitative basis, we are also introducing qualitative factors and we use an analysis which is holistic. So, if a provider shows up through the risk indicators that they have a high risk in a couple of areas, we do not just go and say to that provider, 'You're a high-risk provider;' we look at that in the context of that provider, we talk to that provider and we look at it holistically, not just in terms of individual indicators. So risk is something which is looked at at a holistic level.

Senator MASON: It is not quantitative though, is it? It is more—

Dr Nicoll : It is both. It is quantitative and qualitative—absolutely. Whilst it is easy to get quantitative indicators, quantitative data in relation to indicators, we are also collecting information which is of a qualitative nature to be able to round out that risk assessment that we will be doing of all providers. It will evolve and it is not a static thing. A risk for a small provider will always be something which may be different from that which is a risk to a university with 80,000 students. So you cannot just say there is one model, one template, for risk. It needs to be looked at at an individual level, and we only have 173 providers. We can do that, and the analysis and the assessment that we will be doing over the coming months when we get the full data from all of our providers will give us an assessment—

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Nicoll. Time for this session has expired.