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Senate Estimates: Economics Committee

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 17 Oct 2012

Economics Committee Estimates hearings

17 October 2012

  • Senator RHIANNON
  • Dr Nicoll  
  • Senator Chris Evans 
  • Senator CAMERON
  • Senator MASON

Full transcript available here

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. eople 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 stats 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: 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.


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