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

Lee Rhiannon 6 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON: My first question was going to be—I think you have answered it, but I would like it just clarified—do you and the Group of Eight support the legislation in its current form?

Mr Teece : As I said before, I do not have any particular objection to any of the clauses, so in its current form it looks pretty good to me.

Senator RHIANNON: Right, because there are a number of things here that come into it. The Group of Eight that you represent have got hundreds of years of experience of running universities, and you are in the same regime as private providers, some of whom will have no experience running education at all. Do you see that that can be problematic?

Mr Teece : Not really. I see that it is another very strong argument for regulation based on risk. The regulator will approach different providers based on their risk profiles, their past behaviour, their record of compliance or otherwise with the rules.

Senator RHIANNON: Coming to the work of TEQSA—because that is what it really boils down to, when we listen to you, because you express great confidence in the system as it was set up and you appear to be very confident that that will continue—

Mr Teece : I think I expressed confidence in and support for what we see as the original policy intention.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, let's flesh that out. So you supported the original policy intention, but I have got the clear impression from your responses to the answers so far that you believe that that policy intention will continue with his new legislation.

Mr Teece : We hope that that policy intention will come into force, because it has been in abeyance, at least in part, until now.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say 'hope', what you are appearing here to discuss is legislation; so it is not just about hope. It is to gain your views, and I gather that you are there speaking for the Group of Eight. Are they confident that this new legislation continues that policy intent? That is why the I ask that question specifically, because sometimes you appear to be hedging your bets.

Mr Teece : I am sorry I give that impression. That is not my intention. As I said before, I believe that the proposed amendment is a move in a positive direction—that it reflects, underlines and strengthens the original policy intent, which the previous government outlined in setting up a national regulator and which gained bipartisan support at the time but which, as I said, has not always been observed in practice since TESQA was set up.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. You have clarified that you see that it strengthens it. Can you elaborate on that, considering that TESQA will have less power? That came out in one of the questions from Senator Carr and is particularly relevant around the repealing of section 60. We know that now it will be easier for private providers to set up and the minister also has more power. TESQA, therefore, will be less independent. But taking those first two points, with TESQA with less power and it be easier for private providers to set up, therefore won't TESQA have a lot more work to do with more private providers coming in? How can you be confident that that policy intent will continue with this new legislation when we have those dynamics clearly playing out because of the amendments set out in the proposed bill?

Mr Teece : I am not sure it is really true to say that TESQA will have less power. It will have different functions and its functions will be refocused on what I believe are its core activities and responsibilities. I am not at all sure that it will be easier than it is now or than it was in the past for private providers to gain accreditation.

Senator RHIANNON: Taking the first one, that you dispute my comments about having less power, section 60 removes all those standards—learning, teaching, information, research—because we lose the non-threshold standards. When you remove TESQA's quality assessment function there is an enormous shift here. I am really trying to understand why you are so confident that the policy intent will continue?

Mr Teece : As I said, I wouldn't use the verb 'continue' because there have been problems with observance and implementation of that policy intent in the recent past.

Senator RHIANNON: I certainly did not want to verbal you, so could you correct that. Do you mean that in fact you believe it will improve? What is the shift that you see with the new legislation?

Mr Teece : I believe that, partly due to this legislation, partly due to public statements by the minister and due to directions that the minister has given TESQA under the act—as well as, I hope, due to some of the cultural code change which Senator Carr spoke about before—TESQA will move closer towards regulating providers based on risk rather than applying inefficient and unnecessarily burdensome uniform approaches to all providers, which I would argue it has been doing in the last two years.

Senator RHIANNON: Getting down to the practicalities of the work being done, because at the end of the day that is what we are talking about here, there is a whole lot of judgements and work that needs to be put in in the field. We heard yesterday that they have gone through 40 applications in 20 years and I think there are more than 130 private providers. So the work is going through quite slowly. One of the concerns that has been expressed is that TESQA could be under pressure to approve private providers more quickly because it is happening quite slowly and with the minister having additional power that that may play out. Why I wanted to bring that information together is to again understand from you why you see this legislation as an advance on what we have, considering—and I go back to what I raised in an earlier question—that TESQA has less power, less resources and more work to do? How can the work get done? Because if the work does not get done at the end of the day changing the culture, changing the legislation, we have problems with private providers out there weakening Australia's reputation in the higher education field?

Mr Teece : Private providers need to meet provider registration standards to be accredited by TESQA in the first instance. I take your point about additional pressure on TESQA, if more private providers seek accreditation. But I find it a bit hard to believe that TESQA would accredit dubious private providers simply to reduce the administrative backlog.

Senator RHIANNON: But sometimes they may not know they are dubious private providers. Isn't that the whole issue? If the work is not done thoroughly in the first instance they don't know.

Mr Teece : I do not see any reason to believe that the work would be done less thoroughly, because private providers will have to meet a rigorous set of standards. I would further argue that, if TESQA is focusing more efficiently on its core activities of provider registration and maintaining minimum standards, you might reasonably argue that those jobs will be done better if resources are not allocated to quality assessments of dubious relevance which are rolled out across the entire sector and which often involve collection of large amounts of data, some of which is already reported to government through different methods. So it is an argument about efficiency and focus. So I think that removing the power to conduct whole of sector quality assessments, as I said, may well make TESQA's basic fundamental provider registration and maintenance of minimum standards more effective rather than less.

Senator RHIANNON: Again, what does come across is that you are quite confident that the system can work.

Mr Teece : The system can work, yes. I am confident it can work.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for emphasising that, because other evidence suggests otherwise. We have heard evidence where some private providers, when a team up with the university, then can rely on the university's accreditation to come into the market. That would appear to be a backdoor way of subverting the system. Is that something you have given attention to?

Mr Teece : I think it is something that the regulator would have to pay particular attention to.

Senator RHIANNON: But before they can pay particular attention to it they need to have the means to actually do something about it. I think where the question was obviously going, considering you represent the G8: do you have an opinion that such a system should be allowed to continue?

Mr Teece : Sorry, which system is that?

Senator RHIANNON: Where are private provider can use a university essentially as cover to come in to the higher education system where they are not judged by TESQA because they have got the cover of the university they have teamed up with.

Mr Teece : I think that is a fairly tendentious interpretation of private providers motives, if I may say so. More importantly, I think that private providers that enter franchising arrangements with universities are registered separately as separate providers.

Senator RHIANNON: We just got the evidence of the example at Swinburne where that has not occurred. That is a proper company making profits from the system and they were able to get the accreditation and come into the market because they teamed up with Swinburne. I would have thought that G8 would have given that attention. Your reputation is so important. We are now on the cusp of higher education sector changing in ways that could damage the fine reputation that our universities have built up, not just the G8, but others as well. That is what I am trying to understand, because I thought this would be a top priority for you?

Mr Teece : Protecting the reputation—

Senator RHIANNON: Protecting reputations and the specific example that I was just giving about universities teaming up with private providers who are then exempt from a number of requirements because they are in combined operation with a university.

Mr Teece : As I said, the private providers that participate in those arrangements still need to be accredited by TEQSA in the first instance. They still have to get over the quality and governance hurdles that other providers do and they are held to minimum quality standards in the same way as other private providers.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering that the international student market has been damaged previously, when you were making your assessment of this legislation before us, did you look at it in that context of the international student market and if these changes would uphold standards to protect that market?

Mr Teece : We certainly considered that in the context of both the international and the domestic markets. As I said, our view is that this refocusing of TEQSA's attentions is rather an improvement in regulation and enforcement of quality standards.

Senator RHIANNON: Even though section 60 removes those non-threshold standards, you still thought that it passed your bar.

Mr Teece : On standards, my understanding is that the Higher Education Standards Panel decided and made public their decision, some time ago, in drafting new standards: to recommend abandoning a distinction between threshold and non-threshold standards and to incorporate the important elements of teaching and learning standards and other previously non-threshold standards into the new standards framework as threshold standards.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you have discussions with the government about its intention to amend the legislation before it was introduced in the parliament?

Mr Teece : No.

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