The Abbott Government will have to negotiate with independents and the Palmer United Party to pass a bill aimed at de-regulating the higher education sector, with Labor and the Greens both confirming they will not support the draft legislation.
Their objections relate to the gutting of the tertiary sector’s federal watchdog, the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA).
TEQSA’s role is to ensure that tertiary education – in particular private providers – meets national standards. It was created by the Rudd government amid an industry plagued with problems, in particular among private colleges promoting degrees to international students.
The Abbott Government has already reduced TEQSA’s funding by more than 40 per cent, but the legislation also seeks to reduce TEQSA’s role in ensuring quality standards across the industry.
The concerns of the Greens and Labor are included in minority reports handed down after a Senate Inquiry into the bill, which concluded last month.
Coalition Senators recommended that the bill be passed.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s changes to TEQSA – which only commenced operation in early 2012 – will sideline its quality assurance role, reduce the number of Commissioners, increase Ministerial power over the organisation and allow it to extend accreditation periods for longer than seven years.
Labor has recommended the bill only be passed with substantial amendments, and the Greens are opposing it outright. Its fate will rest with the new parliament, and the views of crossbenchers including Senators from the Palmer United Party.
Some of these Senators have already publicly stated their opposition to the deregulation of university fees, but it remains to be seen if they will support Coalition plans to loosen the reins on the regulation of private colleges, which has a history plagued with problems and scandals.
Pyne’s bill, which was announced last year, ostensibly followed a review of TEQSA early operations, which found more efficiency was needed.
Some universities were also concerned about the cost and time required to meet its requirements.
Some initial support for these concerns escalated into alarm after the Abbott Government announced budget changes which will dramatically alter the higher education landscape by allowing local students to attract public funding for the first time if they enrol in private colleges.
If passed, these changes will lead to new entrants in the private college market and a flurry of takeovers as smaller existing providers aim to profit by on-selling accredited courses.
In a speech to the Senate last week summing up the education change, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon unloaded on the Abbott Government, saying the changes benefitted a handful of wealthy private education providers at the expense of tens of thousands of students.
“The Coalition's brutal budget would make our system more elitist and more unfair,” Senator Rhiannon said.
“Let us have no doubts about why these changes are being made. They are not in the interests of most students and future workers.
“They benefit a handful of the country's wealthiest people and private institutions that stand to make windfall profits from students and workers.
“These changes are about looking after the interests of the corporations close to the Coalition.
“It is worth noting that the private education sector has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Liberal Party in the past decade, and is now poised to subsidise their profits with taxpayer funds in a deregulated free-for-all environment.
“Analysis released by the Greens reveals that the Abbott Government's approach to higher education policy is to rob the public university system to subsidise private providers.”
After the release of the minority reports from the Senate hearings, Senator Kim Carr, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry told New Matilda the higher education landscape had changed dramatically since the Government introduced the TEQSA Amendment Bill.
“The sector is now facing a new round of deregulation, but the Abbott Government hasn’t spelt out what measures, if any, it will take to ensure that protect domestic students are protected, and that quality private providers are not undermined by unscrupulous operators coming into the market,” Senator Carr said.
“It is also worrying that it has nearly halved its funding for the regulator by cutting $31 million from TEQSA’s budget and seeks to strip TEQSA of its powers to conduct quality assurance audits.
“The Government is courting disaster if it fails to ensure that a proper regulatory framework is in place before scores of new entrants rush to claim government funds.
“We would not want to revisit the era before 2009, when unsavoury practices caused overseas media and students to question the quality of an Australian education.
“Poorly regulated, or unregulated, markets allowed charlatans to flourish, tainting the reputations of genuine educators and threatening Australia’s international education industry.
“Quality is the key to our international reputation and is our most precious asset.”
Senator Rhiannon expressed similar concerns to Carr in her dissenting report opposing the bill.
“While the Greens acknowledge there are areas where the work of TEQSA could be better focused, we don’t agree that that warrants the fundamental overhaul currently proposed by the Federal Government.
“The need for a strong regulator in the current system where government and students spend billions on higher education providers is self-evident.
“The Greens don’t 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 graduates are best equipped for the future.
“The proposed expansion of Commonwealth funding to all TEQSA approved higher education providers, regardless of whether or not they are public universities or private, for-profit companies, will significantly change the higher education landscape.
“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.
“The proposed legislation, while clearly supported by university management and the private sector lobby, has not gone through a consultation process involving staff and students prior to this inquiry.
“Staff and students are arguably the biggest stakeholders in the higher education sector, and certainly the most likely to feel the direct impacts of weakened quality assurance mechanisms.
“Further, the legislation was drafted and introduced prior to the Federal Government’s announcement that it would expand Commonwealth funding to all TEQSA approved higher education providers.
“Such a significant policy change will have enormous implications for the sector as a whole but also more particularly for the functions and responsibility of TEQSA.”
Deregulation of the higher education sector has been promoted by the private higher education lobby and have met little resistance from the university sector, although some individual universities have expressed misgivings.
The NTEU and Australian Union of Students are both strongly opposed to the bill, including the lack of consultation that preceded it.
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