Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:44): The Greens now support this legislation. When it was first introduced we were deeply concerned about it. We are pleased that we are now at the stage, because of the amendments, where we have unity, as I understand it, across the chamber. That is always a positive, and it is a good example of how the Senate can successfully work in this way.
Australia's higher education system is clearly an important part of the fabric of our society. It is essential to our economy and to the wellbeing of so many individuals. And considering it is supported by billions of dollars of public investment from federal governments and substantial funding from students in the form of student fees, we need to get regulation right. Regulation can be abused in terms of how the regulator is set up. That is why it is so important to get this legislation right. There are over one million higher education students in Australia, 120,000 staff and dozens of universities, as well as private education providers.
When this legislation was first released, one of the very considerable concerns of the Greens was that it was there to work, to make it much easier for private operators. We now have seen how dangerous, how dubious the operations of some of those private for-profit operators can be. That is why so much effort has been put in to get this legislation right.
I agree with the comment of the previous speaker, Senator Kim Carr, when he linked the changes that have come about in this legislation with the committee work of the Senate. It really was the committee work of the Senate-and I congratulate all those who gave evidence and who put in submissions because they helped work through to the very important point of bringing forward the amendments which I understand Labor have put forward and the government have agreed to. It is so important in terms of protecting the integrity and the standards of our higher education system.
The Australian Greens believe adequate regulation and quality assurance mechanisms are crucial to building a strong higher education sector which protects the public interest and the rights of staff and students. Stakeholders across the higher education sector, including students, staff, universities and the federal government, deserve to have mechanisms in place to ensure the vast amounts-we are talking about billions of dollars-of public and private money being spent on higher education are delivering a quality return. We are talking about the future of individuals and the future of the country. This is incredibly important legislation. While the Greens agree with many in the higher education sector that TEQSA's role could be improved, we did not support the overhaul of the organisation as proposed in the original, unamended legislation. I want to put that on the record very clearly.
I was very concerned at the end of 2013 when the coalition government caved in to pressure from the university vice-chancellors and really crippled TEQSA's role in quality assurance and regulation. Strong, quality-assurance mechanisms and a fair regulatory framework are not inconsistent with academic independence and innovation. Given that billions of dollars-I cannot emphasise this enough-are flowing from governments to universities, we need an agency with teeth. It needs to be a real agency, not a mickey mouse job so that the minister of the day has the headline he needs when another scandal breaks about another college, but a real regulator with teeth to ensure that education quality is maintained at the highest levels. That is what we need and that is what we are working to get in this legislation.
We do not want TEQSA to be a light-touch regulator. This has to be said over and over again and we have to be so vigilant here. If we ended up with a light-touch regulator, this would lead to significant concerns which, justifiably, would come from international students and from the Australian public, as well as from those attending the colleges and the higher education institutions. TEQSA's role must be always to ensure that tertiary education, in particular by private providers, meets national standards.
We need to remember it was created by the Rudd government amid an industry plagued with problems in particular among private colleges promoting degrees to international students. We need to remember where this came from: it came from a serious problem which was a real setback for our higher education-how we were perceived on the international market. This legislation is needed for those important reasons.
The need for a strong regulator in the current system where government and students spend billions on higher education providers should be self-evident. The Greens do not support the notion that a private market in and of itself provides adequate oversight and regulation. Education is a public good, and in so far as there is a private market for the delivery of higher education the government must play an essential role in ensuring the quality of that education is of the highest standard so that graduates are best equipped for the future. In their submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill, the National Union of Students argued that:
Students are ultimately the prime beneficiaries of a strong quality regulatory framework.
Unfortunately what we saw from this government in the May budget-and in this bill-was the gutting of regulation in higher education at the same time as a massive expansion of the sector was being proposed. The beneficiaries of this new regime would likely be private, higher education providers, who would doubly benefit from the proposal to extend Commonwealth funding and from the proposed gutting of TEQSA. The losers would be students and staff, subjected to a weakened regulatory regime.
The need for a strong regulator in such an environment becomes even more necessary than it is currently. It is incredibly worrying that the federal government is simultaneously proposing to massively expand the private higher education sector, at the expense of the public sector, while stripping back TEQSA's functions and cutting its funding by 41 per cent. These factors need to be linked. They are very serious and they have implications for what is the government's intent.
The Greens have a number of concerns relating to the legislation in its current form. The removal of quality assurance functions from TEQSA raises serious questions about where that responsibility will now lie, or if in fact it will fall within any government department or agency at all.
As the National Union of Students argues:
What happens to the quality assurance improvement functions that AUQA used to perform? The [Lee] Dow-Braithwaite report argues that aspects of sector or discipline-based quality assurance - best practice and continuous improvement - could be better delivered through the Office of Learning and Teaching. NUS would be concerned about the adequacy of current resource levels for the Office of Learning and Teaching to take on this role. The Government needs to reveal its intentions with regard to these functions.
Again, this underlines why the amendments were needed, why this legislation had to change from its original form.
We also had concerns around the proposals to authorise the minister to reduce the number of TEQSA commissioners, provide the minister with greater flexibility in terms of commissioner appointments, as well as the proposed legislation's impact on current commissioners. As noted by the National Tertiary Education Union in their submission to the Senate inquiry, these changes raise:
... serious question about procedural fairness and natural justice for people who have entered into an employment contract in good faith. If the Minister wishes to have the power to dismiss a Commissioner or Commissioners on grounds other than those currently specified in the Act, then he or she should amendment the legislation to change the reasons and not use transitional arrangements associated with changes to the Act to remove people for unspecified reasons.
In keeping with other decisions made by this government, the proposal to slash TEQSA's funding nearly in half and gut many of its important functions was not relayed to the public prior to the last election-again, a very worrying aspect of how this government is conducting its higher education policy overall. It certainly was a factor in the debate that we have just had, on Minister Pyne's major higher education bill, and it is certainly a highly unsatisfactory way for any government to operate. As with the government's proposed cuts to higher education, the government remained silent, waiting till it won office to deliver for its mates in the private sector. That is one of our major concerns. I have particular concerns about how this bill was developed, but it is pleasing that we have been able to agree on the amendments, so many of the issues of concern that the Greens have addressed have now been amended in the bill, which I understand that the government is now willing to support.