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Education and Employment Legislation Committee: Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014

Question
Lee Rhiannon 6 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON: In your submission you note that the bill does not provide for a maximum duration of extensions of registration and accreditation decisions. You go on to say that decisions 'must be backed by robust internal guidelines and strict criteria'. Can you expand on what you think the risks are in not specifying a maximum duration for extensions? I ask that because I noted in your submission that you were largely supportive of the legislative changes as just minor changes. I think that was in your submission.

Ms Robinson : I think it would be true to say that we are genuinely comfortable with the amendments as put without necessarily wanting to change any of those. But going back to your first question, one of the really key and important roles of TEQSA is maintaining and being able to demonstrate the maintenance of the integrity of the higher education system and in doing that maintain the reputation of Australia's higher education system. So it is important that, when it comes to things like registration periods, we are able to demonstrate that all institutions are looked at carefully from time to time and that the view of the regulatory agency is that they are upholding the standards that the standards panel set.

With that in mind, while we agree with and welcome the flexibility in being able to extend the registration period, we would say two things. It is important that we are able to say that all providers go through an assessment. It is also perhaps worth considering TEQSA developing criteria and guidelines around when the extension to those registration periods take place and on what basis—again, to uphold the integrity of the TEQSA system.

Senator RHIANNON: You raised two points there. The first was that all providers will go through assessment. Did you raise that because at the present time you are concerned that they do not all go through assessment?

Ms Robinson : No, sorry if I have misunderstood. I thought your question was in relation to the amendment suggesting flexibility in the ongoing extension of a registration period. We are saying that, while we appreciate the flexibility that provides and we welcome it and support it, it is important in making sure that we can continue to demonstrate the integrity of the system that we are able to see and say that all institutions go through assessment.

Senator RHIANNON: You probably heard the evidence from the Group of Eight. I would be interested in your comments here, too. What is surprising is a great emphasis from bodies such as yourselves that represent universities on the importance of TEQSA and having integrity of the system. But there is a weakening in the integrity of the system when you look at the whole issue of non-threshold standards being removed. That does not seem to have been picked up. I am interested to understand why you are confident in the bill continuing to promote TEQSA in a way that will ensure the integrity of the system when we have actually had parts of the legislation removed that I would have thought were integral to ensuring that is achieved.

Ms Robinson : It is a good point, but I guess I do not necessarily agree that removing or not proceeding with the non-threshold standards threatens or weakens the integrity of TEQSA in that when there was debate around what was threshold and what was nonthreshold it was quite confusing. I do not think anyone really got their heads around what that actually meant. It is like core promises and non-core promises—what do they actually mean? So our view was, 'Let's put the effort into identifying the threshold standards and how they will be applied,' as opposed to having discussions about what is threshold and what is not threshold and, if it is not threshold, how in fact you regulate non-threshold standards. So we do not necessarily see that as a weakening of the integrity. But it is important that thought is given to the threshold standards. You are probably aware that the draft standards have been released for public consultation. I think that will be quite an important process to ensure that we are comfortable that those threshold standards are the appropriate ones to maintain the integrity of the system.

Mr King : When this part of the TEQSA bill was being created to start with, the debate was that the non-threshold standards would be more qualitative and there would not be such a question of whether you were meeting the threshold—yes or no. I was someone who thought there was some potential in that. But there were people who said, 'No, that is going to confuse the way in which the regulator operates.' I think those people have been proven right and that it is complicated if you combine whether someone is suitable and meeting the threshold or not with a more qualitative assessment on how well they are meeting it, which is essentially where the non-threshold standards were going to lead us. I think that was going to take us in a direction that the agency is not capable of dealing with. It would have created confusing messages, which I think is part of the reason why the standards panel would not have proceeded with that approach.

Dr Cassidy : Something that Alan Robson, the chair of the Higher Education Standards Panel, has asked on a number of occasions is, 'What exactly is a non-threshold standard?' Something is either a standard which you are supposed to pass or it is not. So the decision the standards panel made, in our understanding, is that there should be just one set of standards. And Conor King is absolutely right when he says that the concept of passing judgement on how far beyond the standards you have reached is not a role for TEQSA to have; it is not a role for a standard to achieve. If you look at, say, a bike helmet, the standard is: will it protect your head or not? It is not about how well it will protect your head. So the decision the standards panel has made is that there should be a bar to be overcome rather than an assessment of how far beyond a standard you have gone.

CHAIR: Okay. Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: If I am summarising it correctly, what I am hearing is that you recognise the importance of TEQSA and, if anything, see that the legislation will improve its work. Leaving aside the point I just raised about section 60, in terms of the practicality of the work, now it will be easier for private providers to enter the market and we have a TEQSA that has fewer resources, isn't there a contradiction here? You are looking for a TEQSA that will strengthen the integrity of the system, but in fact TEQSA will have a much larger workload. Yesterday in estimates we heard they got through 40 applications in two years. I think there are over 130 providers, with more expected to come into the market. So how can the integrity of system be ensured by a body like TEQSA when it is going to be on overload and with fewer resources to do its job? We need to look at this in a practical way. When you are looking at legislation, you also need to look at how it plays out.

Mr King : My first comment is that this bill does not go to the resourcing of the agency. That is a separate government decision, and indeed they have decided or are proposing to reduce the resources. There is an important question to be raised there about what resourcing the agency needs to do these sorts of roles. The commissioner who is appearing as the next witness is probably in a good position to give you an answer on that. So this legislation does not directly affect that issue.

I am interested in the assertion that there will be a lot more providers. That is an open question. There are already a lot out there, other providers who will come into the funded system, and TEQSA have to do the work to address that—and that is part of the reason why we want to focus on, make judgements about, what the areas are where they feel there is a risk with a provider, and investigating and concentrating on those particular cases. The existing set have operated; they are operating now. They will perhaps have access to government funding but that in itself does not change whether or not they are operating well. I think the evidence to date is that most of the other providers are doing the right thing at this point. Clearly, others can come in, but they have to go through the TEQSA process. Ultimately, if that is also a little bit slow and cumbersome, that is not a bad thing in some respects. You do not want a new higher education provider giving a course next month, having thought of it today. They have to go through a proper process to have that considered.

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CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: I just want to get your opinion on an issue that came up earlier. We now have the Higher Education Standards Panel and then we also have the Shergold advisory council—I am not sure of its exact name. Is your understanding that it needs to be resolved how these bodies work together and what the responsibilities are? Do you think it is clear?

Ms Robinson : I think the standards panel is clear. What the intersection of the TEQSA advisory committee and the Shergold committee is with the standards panel, it is very early days—I am not sure how many meetings they have actually had. I think it is a very useful construct. Senator Carr talked a little bit before about some of the private providers that were registered under the state arrangements coming into the TEQSA arrangement and questions over to what extent they will be assessed by TEQSA. It is a very good question and I do not think there is any clear answer to it, but that is the sort of question that I imagine could be referred, say, to the Shergold committee to have a look at. I think there is a very important function to be served by that group. It is still very early days to see how the intersection works, but I think there are things for it to do and there is value in it continuing.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'useful construct', you mean with that body? But it needs to be clarified how they work together?

Ms Robinson : It is reasonably clear in terms of what its purpose is—to provide advice to TEQSA and to the minister around a range of regulation issues, and I am not sure that they are just constrained to TEQSA—but, on how it actually works, I think it is still early days.

Senator RHIANNON: You do not have a concern about duplication? You do not think that is something we should be—

Ms Robinson : I think it is a bit early to draw any conclusions about that. But I think it is worth watching how the bodies work together.

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