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Senate Estimates: Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 7 Jun 2012

Economics Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings 28 May 2012

  • Mr David De Carvalho, Head of Higher Education Division
  • Mr James Hart, General Manager, Higher Education Infrastructure Branch

  • Dr Andrew Taylor, General Manager, Policy Analysis Branch

  • Ms Susan Hewlett, General Manager, Office for Learning and Teaching

  • Mr Robert Griew, Associate Secretary, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

  • Senator Evans, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research

  • Senator Mason

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: I am interested in issues to do with retiring academics. I asked some questions back in February regarding the number of retiring academics and how that was being responded to. My recollection was that the response was mainly about how you are handling it in a research capacity. I was interested in how you are working in terms of replacing full-time teaching academics in our staff, so I will just start off with a general question and then take it from there.

Mr de Carvalho : Are you asking how the government is working to replace staff?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. I understand that $35.7 billion has been injected for teaching and learning in our universities over four years. What is the government doing to ensure the retiring cohort of full-time teaching academics will be replaced by experienced teaching academics?

Mr de Carvalho : The universities, as you know, are the recipients of government funding, but they are also autonomous decision makers, and it is their responsibility to manage their workforce. Those decisions, in terms of how they recruit in a very competitive international market, are ones that are best left to them. There is no recruitment program that the government runs to attract academics.

Senator RHIANNON: I realise the government is obviously not doing the recruitment. It is really because there is this shift proceeding. It is becoming more of an issue of debate between the teaching and the research components within our universities. We have a large number of retiring academics, or academics that are in a cohort that will be retiring. I am interested in knowing whether this is something where the government is looking at what the trends are or if there is any policy shift that might be considered to address this issue?

Senator Chris Evans: Certainly. I could just make a general comment. A point that I made to the vice-chancellors is that I would not want to see the ERA system or the competition for research funds and standing and the laudable focus on excellence and quality in the research area cause a shift of resources away from the very important issues of teaching and learning. So, if your broad question is about that, my view is that we need a university that does both with a high focus on excellence. I know there is some concern that the competition for research, prestige and funding is perhaps pushing the balance too far in favour of research—I have had that criticism raised with me—and I would be concerned if that is the case. I am not sure that it is, but I am alert to it and I have made it very clear, particularly with the expansion of the system, that if anything there has to be more focus on teaching and learning.

I have also heard the view, as some people say to me, 'We have to get someone else to teach in the first years.' I say, 'Well, no, as far as I am concerned that is university core business.' So I am not necessarily saying I think there is a problem, but I am alert to it. I know it is a concern people are raising and we are doing as much as we can and will continue to do so to make sure that there is a real emphasis on excellence in teaching and learning, because that is also core business of the universities and we want to have a system that is good at both. The officers may be able to help you with that.

Dr Taylor : In terms of the data, the number of staff employed at Australian universities increased by 21.1 per cent for the period 2005 to 2010, which is the latest of our data. The number of full-time equivalent staff increased by 18 per cent in that same period.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you got a breakdown of those staff between research and teaching, or both?

Dr Taylor : Yes, I do. The teaching-only staff as a percentage of full-time equivalent staff is 86.5 per cent. I might take that one on notice actually, rather than fumble through my figures here.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, just to go back, because you gave a useful and expansive answer there which emphasised a number of times that you were aware of these trends—these comments. I will say they were comments being made to you. Is there any research being done to see if this is a trend? It does come up quite often.

Senator Chris Evans: There has certainly been a discussion between me and senior officers about how we continue to make sure that there is a focus on teaching and learning outcomes. We are doing a lot through the office and I suppose at this stage it is a question of monitoring that consideration. I think this is being driven in part by a couple of big universities doing reorganisations and, I think, concern from some staff and students about what those things might mean. As I say, I have not come to a judgment about whether that is fair or not, but it is something that I am looking at and conscious of, and we are starting to talk about those issues.

Mr Griew : I might just make two comments. I think, as Mr de Carvalho was saying, there is not a specific workforce strategy in the teaching area in the way that I suspect you were asking for, but there are a number of points at which government policy engages with that. In a moment, I will ask Ms Hewlett to talk to the work of the Office for Learning and Teaching, which has a sizeable array of research projects and development projects happening across the sector on quality matters. The general point is that the funding to universities has increased not just through the number of places but through much more generous indexation parameters. You gave the very large figure, which is the total contribution, of $38 million.

The other thing to draw your attention to is the significant amount of work we are doing with TEQSA, with the higher education standards panel and with the universities to develop quality measures. That will throw a much greater light on university performance in learning and teaching through the publication Online University and elsewhere. I think the universities themselves would say the days where they could rely on reputation, given the kind of dynamics operating in the sector now, are well and truly over. The actions of some of those vice-chancellors, in some ways, have been about putting a bit more pressure on their academic staff. It may be worth hearing from Ms Hewlett, whose grants program and staff are working in the area of quality, because it goes so directly to this matter.

Ms Hewlett : The Office for Learning and Teaching has taken over the functions of the former Australian Learning and Teaching Council and we have a range of programs. We have a fellowships program, a grants program and an awards program that recognises excellent teachers in universities. The office also commissions work, and one of the two projects that we are looking at commissioning work on at the moment is professionalisation of the academic workforce, or the capacity or capability of the academic workforce. So we have gone out to the sector and asked for a range of projects which could look at things like teaching-only positions and measures that universities have in place to enhance the quality of their teaching. That commissioned work closed on Friday and about six or seven projects have been submitted. They will be assessed and we will award some of those projects.

Senator RHIANNON: You said you had two projects on. Are these two research projects that you are driving, where you have gone out to the sector asking for their response?

Ms Hewlett : That is right. We have two themes. One is academic integrity and the other is professionalisation of the academic workforce. The academic integrity stream is looking at things like English and language teaching, plagiarism and other—

Senator RHIANNON: You mentioned teaching-only positions. That is what I am interested in. Where are you looking at that aspect to ensure that we still have a strong teaching component within our universities?

Ms Hewlett : The first element of that project is to look at gathering some data around how the universities are actually using those positions, who is using them, how they are allocating those positions and what the driver is of teaching-only positions.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that data available publicly?

Ms Hewlett : I am sure some of that is available publicly, but at this stage we do not really have a very comprehensive picture of what it looks like, so that is one of the reasons for going out there and collecting that data. We have anecdotal information but not much more at this point.

Senator RHIANNON: I am interested in this. Is the intent to end up with comprehensive data so that we can actually see the trends in what is going on here? Is that the intent of the project?

Ms Hewlett : Yes, the intent of the project is to go out to the universities and find out which universities have teaching-only positions, how many of them they have and what the drivers are or what the reasons are for them having those particular positions.

Senator RHIANNON: So you will look for quantitative data as well as qualitative.

Ms Hewlett : I will be working with my colleague here, Dr Taylor, on the quantitative side. This side is probably more qualitative, to look at the policy drivers for having teaching-only positions.

Senator RHIANNON: When will those two projects be completed?

Ms Hewlett : For the first stage of the project looking at teaching-only positions we are hoping to have something in the next six months, but there will be a range of other projects around professionalisation of the academic workforce.

Senator RHIANNON: Just to clarify again, is it a project that, when it is finalised, will be like a brief for the minister, or is it something that will be put on your website that then would be out there to inform the sector of the trends?

Ms Hewlett : We publicly release all of the reports that are provided through our projects and they are up on our website.

Mr Griew : Ms Hewlett’s branch’s clients are primarily the sector. It is the dissemination of the practice.

Senator RHIANNON: That will have all the data in it?

Ms Hewlett : Yes.

Mr Griew : Can I also just stress this point. I know you were talking about a teaching strategy as opposed to a research strategy, but the research workforce strategy is significantly relevant to early- and mid-career academics.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, thank you for emphasising. I did not want my question to be misunderstood. I was trying to get a sense of the trends and the analysis.

Mr Griew : No, I am not emphasising—

Senator RHIANNON: The question has been taken on notice. I was not just after one piece of that data.

Senator MASON: With respect to what Senator Rhiannon referred to as 'teaching-only positions', how many of them are there in Australian public universities?

Dr Taylor : I think there are 2,943.

Senator MASON: What percentage is that?

Dr Taylor : I do not have that figure. The total is 109,524.

Mr Griew : It is quite small.

Dr Taylor : It would be small, yes.

Senator MASON: Would they be full time, potentially tenured positions?

Dr Taylor : They are both full time and part time. There are 1,664 full time.

Senator MASON: Are they tenurable positions?

Dr Taylor : I am not sure.

Mr Griew : That would be a university decision.

Senator MASON: Sure, but—

Dr Taylor : I am not sure whether we would be able to get data about if they are tenurable positions.

Mr de Carvalho : A high proportion of teaching-only are casual.

Senator MASON: Dr Taylor, is this a growing trend?

Dr Taylor : Yes, it is, from the figures.

Senator MASON: How significant is the growing trend?

Dr Taylor : For example, in 2005 there were 559 full-time teaching only staff—

Mr Griew : It is off a very low base and it is not a big number.

Dr Taylor : and now there are 1,664. So it shows a nearly 200 per cent increase, but from a very low base.

Senator MASON: Sure, but it is interesting. Like Senator Rhiannon, I am hearing about this again. Again, it is early days—I know that—but vice-chancellors obviously have the capacity to do this under workplace arrangements.

Mr Griew : I think it is important to stress the degree of precision in these figures. Given the low number of them and therefore the degree of attention they would receive in universities, I would be very, very reluctant to draw a big conclusion from this information.

Senator MASON: I am not trying to be alarmist; I think it is worth noting. I think we are at the stage, Mr Griew, in public policy where we can note it.

Mr Griew : I am observing that it is a very small proportion and growing. The significance of any trend against these data, in particular, would be very hard to draw.

Senator Chris Evans: I would also be interested in how much this is impacted by increasing numbers of part-time people from industry lecturing or tutoring.

Mr de Carvalho : On that very point, we have just released a discussion paper to the sector. You may have heard the minister in previous estimates hearings refer to a review of the staff data collection and we have just, in consultation with Universities Australia, released a discussion paper on this very issue—on what the staff data collection says, how it can be improved and how it can be made more useful.

Senator MASON: Sure, and data is important—I understand that. But I just note that this is occurring and I suspect, Mr Griew, that this is a trend that will continue. There you go. There is my guess.

Mr de Carvalho : I think the review of the staff data collection will help us get a much better handle on the classification of areas of data that we get from universities and give us a higher degree of precision and usefulness.

Senator RHIANNON: I just wanted to move on to the student services administration fee and infrastructure. How much of the SSAF income have universities this year diverted into infrastructure or capital expenditure?

Mr de Carvalho : I am not sure that we have data on that at this stage.

Senator RHIANNON: Do we have data?

Dr Groom : We will not have that information available. What we have to date is a list of priorities from universities for the expenditure of their fee revenue. The information on what they intend to spend the money on is more likely to be collated fully towards the end of the year, and then when we receive their annual financial statements in the following year we will see the actual expenditure of the fee income.

Mr de Carvalho : We do have some indication based on our survey of what universities have put on their websites and as a result of their consultations what they intend to do with the fees, and I could just quickly summarise that for you. Of the universities that have published or advised the department of their priorities for fee expenditure, 80 per cent will use fee revenue to fund student support and advocacy services, 80 per cent will use fee revenue to fund sporting activities and student clubs, 69 per cent of universities will use fee revenue to create and maintain physical and online infrastructure, 69 per cent will use fee revenue to fund health and wellbeing services and 61 per cent will use fee revenue to fund academic, employment and accommodation assistance programs.Of course, the total there is much more than 100 per cent because many universities are not just using the fee for one specific purpose, and we cannot tell from those figures what the split across the sector, or within one particular university, is likely to be between those services.

Senator RHIANNON: Do those categories that you just read out come from the universities or are they categories that you worked out? I can appreciate that you do not have the figures here, but you do have the possible trends about where it ends up. What I am interested in is how much of that infrastructure will directly contribute to addressing skills shortages or quality academic teaching and learning. Is that a category that is being covered by this?

Mr de Carvalho : The formal categories, in terms of how the student services amenities fee revenue might be used, are set out in the act, and there is a long list of them. I am not quite sure how the summary figures I just gave you were constructed, but there is a large number of allowable student services and amenities that the revenue can be used for. It looks like there are about 20 or so. As for what proportion of the revenue might be used on infrastructure, again, as Dr Groom has indicated, we do not have, and are unlikely to have, information on that for some time.

Mr Griew : Can I just make an observation. To comply with that list, of course, any infrastructure spending would have to be infrastructure spending relevant to the purposes of the fee, not general infrastructure for the university. So I just question the term ‘diversion’ in this. If it were a piece of infrastructure directly relevant to the wellbeing of students then that would be a legitimate choice for universities to make.

Senator RHIANNON: I look forward to when we get more data. What mechanisms are in place to ensure expenditure of the SSAF by universities is in keeping with the intention?

Mr de Carvalho : Each year, each higher education provider will be required to provide an annual compliance certificate signed by the vice-chancellor or the CEO that confirms two things: firstly, that the provider charged the student services amenities fee strictly in accordance with the act and the administration guidelines that were made under the act and, secondly, that the revenue from the fee was spent strictly in accordance with the act and the student services amenities representation and advocacy guidelines and only on services and amenities specified in the act.

Senator RHIANNON: So the compliance is really a form of self-regulation. It is just left up to the university?

Mr Griew : They are to report to us.

Mr de Carvalho : They are required to provide us with that certificate of compliance.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, but when you see that—

Mr de Carvalho : Are we going to go into universities and check ourselves, our own motion inquiries? Not on the basis of that necessarily, but we will investigate claims of breaches of compliance if they are made to us. We do not have staff set up to go and police this, if you like.

Mr Griew : It is not technically self-regulation in that they are required to make a signed declaration to us which would be actionable if we formed a view for whatever reason that it was—

Senator RHIANNON: I think some people would call that self-regulation, but we will not argue the point on that. If there is a problem, it is up to people to report that to the department—that is how it works—and then you possibly would follow it up?

Mr Griew : If they thought that there was a problem, they should tell us, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there a complaints mechanism or is it just a matter of writing to you?

Mr de Carvalho : If people write to the department and make a claim or allege that there is a breach, we will investigate it.

Senator RHIANNON: On the education infrastructure fund, I understand that the original commitment for this fund was $11 billion. Is that likely? Is there any intention or possibility of us reaching that amount? My recollection was that the government originally committed to topping up the fund from any future budget surpluses.

Mr Hart : When the EIF was created in January 2009, the balance of the higher education endowment fund was transferred, and that was $6.484 billion. There have been no further deposits to the EIF since then.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, I might go to you then. Is that correct, that it was originally going to be $11 billion?

Senator Chris Evans: I am not familiar with that figure. I am not saying you are wrong, but I would have to take that on notice. It does not ring a bell with me. The officers can help you with how we have expended the EIF funding we have been allocated, but the management of the fund is with finance, is it?

Mr Griew : That is correct, the department of finance, and the global financial crisis has somewhat inhibited the ability of the government to top it up.

Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate that. Minister, could you take on notice what the original amount was and whether it is correct that the government originally committed to top up the fund from any future budget surpluses?

Senator Chris Evans: I will take that on notice rather than have a slash outside the off stump.

Senator RHIANNON: I will move on to the current regional priorities round. How much money will be allocated to higher education providers and to VET? I am interested in the division there.

Mr Hart : There is no division. The EIF advisory board will consider the applications. Those applications that they determine meet the criteria will be forwarded to the government for consideration for funding, but there is no predetermined split between higher education and VET.

Senator RHIANNON: If there is no divide there, considering VET often has been losing money—I think we have had arguments about that at previous estimates—could there end up being considerable imbalance from the tertiary education side, the higher education side, compared with VET, or have you got mechanisms in place to ensure that does not happen?

Mr Griew : In no trivial way at all, I would make the point it is a very senior, high-level, high-functioning board, including at least one member I can think of with a strong, strong background in the skills area—the chair of Skills Australia, in fact. Also, this is a regional round. I would not want to in any way pre-empt the work of the board, but I think there would be a precedence on collaborations and innovative infrastructure propositions which are likely to include all sectors. So I would be fairly confident, given the record of that board, the personnel and the sector we are talking about—the regional tertiary sector—that we would be expecting to see high-quality propositions, including from the VET sector.

Mr Hart : I can also add—and this is available on the department’s website—that there were 40 applications submitted through stage 2 of the regional priorities round; 13 were from the higher education sector and 27 were from VET, so there are actually two VET applications for every one from higher ed.

Senator RHIANNON: Just to look at trends within that, too, I understand the EIF regional priorities round indicates a large number of private VET providers on the stage 2 shortlist for that round.

Senator Chris Evans: There were only one or two, I think.

Mr Hart : There are some private providers; there are also a significant number of TAFEs in that 27 as well. There were only a small number of RTOs; I do not have the exact figures here.

Senator RHIANNON: So my information is wrong; it is not a large number of private VET providers in stage 2?

Mr Hart : They are mainly TAFEs.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you give me the numbers, please? I am interested in that.

Mr Hart : I do not have the exact numbers, but I can provide that on notice for you.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you also take on notice how much funding is being provided in each round to public universities, the public VET providers and private providers?

Mr Hart : We can provide that. I can give you a breakdown of higher education versus the VET sector for the previous competitive rounds of EIF.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, thank you.

Mr Hart : Round 2 was the first competitive round of the Education Investment Fund available to VET providers. The amount committed for higher education in round 2 was $480.54 million; for vocational education and training it was $131.95 million. Do you want the research number as well?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, please.

Mr Hart : It was $321.7 million.

Mr Griew : I am just checking, but I do not have any recollection of private providers being in the EIF list so far, other than in this second round.

Mr Hart : We are providing information on notice.

Mr Griew : Okay, we will get you that breakdown too then.

Mr Hart : I can give you the number of projects that were funded through that. In round 2 there were 11 for higher education, 12 for VET and eight for research—a total of 31. In round 3, the sustainability round, there were 19 projects funded. Four were for higher education, totalling $141.05 million; six were for VET, $103.2 million; and nine were for research, $305.75 million.

 Full transcript available here


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