Economic Legislation Committee Estimates hearings, 23 May 2012
Economic Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings, 23 May 2012
Dr Carol Nicoll, Cheif Commissioner of Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency
Senator Chris Evans, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator RHIANNON: Dr Nicoll, could you outline the investigative powers of TEQSA, please?
Dr Nicoll: I can. They are outlined in the act. Part 7 division 2 of the TEQSA Act outlines the specific investigations of potential offences and civil penalty provisions that we can undertake. Without me going through it, it is all there in that part of the act, and that is the framework that we will use.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I did have some idea of that. Thank you. I wanted to bring it in because, from my understanding of it, it seemed that it was very strong and possibly excessive.
Dr Nicoll: That is not for me to comment on of course.
Senator RHIANNON: I will come back to that with the minister. I was interested in the Higher Education Standards Panel. There is no staff representative on that. Is there any reason for that?
Dr Nicoll: I am sorry; I do not quite understand your question, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: There is not a representative of the staff on that panel?
Dr Nicoll: Senator, you would have to take that up with the minister. The minister appoints the Higher Education Standards Panel on the advice of the department. That is not an issue for me to comment on.
Senator RHIANNON: In the last estimates I received an answer that the average student-staff ratio across all universities in 2010 was 20.7. You said that it was up from 17.8 in 2000.
Dr Nicoll: I do not think I said that, Senator. It might have been the department.
Senator RHIANNON: Okay. I will go on to my question: does the currently used definition of student-staff ratio include research-only staff, who do not teach?
Dr Nicoll: Senator, I am not trying to avoid the question, but that is not a question for me. The way that is calculated is done by the department. That will be something you will have to raise with them.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you mean by that that they determine the definitions—
Dr Nicoll: Correct.
Senator RHIANNON: that you use?
Dr Nicoll: We will be drawing on data from a variety of collections. If you are talking about staff-student ratios, that is a calculation that is undertaken by the department based on the data, and that will be something you will have to take up with them.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I went through this last time and I must admit I am still trying to understand who I asked it to. I understand you are currently seeking feedback from providers about collection of data regarding students, staff and finances. That is what we just touched on a bit.
Dr Nicoll: That is correct. We are doing that.
Senator RHIANNON: Will the May 2012 provider information request be collecting data describing actual class sizes in courses at each university based on actual student person numbers?
Dr Nicoll: We will be drawing on data that comes from the student and staff collection that is held by DIISRTE. You would have to talk to them about how they calculate and define those data elements, because it is about a definition that they have and that is not my place to speak about.
Senator RHIANNON: Your position, as you are explaining, is not to comment on the definitions here but to assemble this data and analyse it. But if the definitions are such that they can skew your data—
Dr Nicoll: I think I understand the drift of your question. We have a delicate balancing act to play in the sector. Senator Mason has already raised the issue that there may be some people in the sector who would consider that our requests are in some way a problem for them, a challenge for them. Were we to go down the track of coming up with new definitions for those sorts of things, that would be very problematic for the sector. The issue you raise is about definitions of data. The department is very aware of the importance of data definitions, as is TEQSA. I think you need to raise that particular question with the department.
Senator RHIANNON: I want to go to the Larkins 2011 academic staffing trends paper. He states that the ratio of coursework student numbers to actual students in 2010 was 34:1. Do you look at those findings? Are you looking at findings that others are bringing forward as you are developing this work, particularly in the early stages, which this is?
Dr Nicoll: We certainly draw on any research that is being done across the sector both nationally and internationally. Where there is work that is coming through we will look at it and we will think about it in terms of what it says about the sector at an aggregate level. But our focus needs to be very much on the outcomes for particular providers as we look at their capacity to meet the threshold standards.
Senator RHIANNON: I am still trying to explore the issue of definitions. I am not asking whether you are doing new definitions but, as we are in a very formative stage in TEQSA getting going and given that this data is being assembled in such different ways by different bodies, I really want to explore this further. In the Larkins paper the ratio is on coursework student numbers to actual teachers. Have you looked at that?
Dr Nicoll: I am very aware of Professor Larkins' work.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that seen as a more meaningful description of actual class sizes and teacher load in universities?
Dr Nicoll: Senator, I am not prepared to give a view on that. We need to look to where we can collect data. There will be people who have different views on the data and the definitions. We will be working with the department and other agencies that collect data on improving definitions, where that is appropriate. Professor Larkins has offered a particular view from his perspective, but it is not the only view in the sector in defining what you have described as class sizes or staff-student ratios. So there are a number of issues in relation to this that need to be unpacked. But I am aware of Professor Larkins' perspective.
Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean that you are not in a position to comment on the trends in the student-staff ratio using actual coursework student numbers per full-time teacher academic from 2007 to the present? You would not comment on those trends, because they have used definitions that are different from yours?
Dr Nicoll: No, Senator, I would not comment on those trends. We will look at research that exists and is out in the public domain and we will in fact commission our own research into areas. We will be looking at trends as we build our data collection over time. The issue you are raising is about the definitional issues: how staff-student ratios are calculated. The department has had a longstanding interpretation of the way that it is interpreted. Professor Larkins has a different view and his view is not the only view in the sector. But you would really have to raise the definitional issues with the department. I am sorry, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: In February we were advised that the private higher education providers are currently not required to report staff data. Will TEQSA be asking private higher education providers to report staff data?
Dr Nicoll: Yes, we will.
Senator RHIANNON: So this will obviously be quite helpful.
Dr Nicoll: In fact, it will be the first time that that will be collected across the whole higher education sector. That is one of the things that TEQSA represents. It is a national regulator of the entire higher education sector, both the universities and the private providers. It means that there is an opportunity to collect data that we will be able to draw upon across all of those.
Senator RHIANNON: I want to check again about the full-time equivalent basis. Are casual staff reported only as a full-time equivalent basis and not as accountive individuals?
Dr Nicoll: I will take that on notice because by the time I find the answer to that question we could well have exceeded the time that you have to ask me questions. I am happy to take on notice what we are proposing—acknowledging, though, that what we have put out initially is for consultation and we have not settled our final information request of providers. I am very happy to provide you with the details of that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Minister, while you popped out I asked a question about the Higher Education Standards Panel. Why is there no staff representative on that panel?
Senator Chris Evans: I will take that on notice. I cannot recall. Obviously the panel has been appointed and the composition is known. I will take a question on notice as to what consideration was given to a staff representative at the time. I just do not recall.
Senator RHIANNON: But, Minister, were you not responsible? We have only two, four or five people on the panel. I understood that you are the person who signed off on it and had a large input into it. I would have thought that that could be provided to us now.
Senator Chris Evans: The membership?
Senator RHIANNON: No, I have the membership in front of me. I want to know why there is no staff representative.