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Greens stand against expansion of Government funding for for-profit universities

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Robert Simms 24 Nov 2015

I rise today to speak to Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2015.

The Greens hope to support this Bill today, as there is much in it that we believe to be good.

This Bill would extend HELP loans to a subset of New Zealand citizens who have been long term residents here in Australia since they were children, providing pathways to an affordable qualification in the Australian tertiary education system for thousands. This is a welcome change from the government, who only months ago was quite mute on Senator Carr's bill of a similar nature. My colleague Senator Rhiannon spoke in support of that Bill then, and the Greens will support it now.

 

This Bill would also end duplication in the reporting requirements that now exist in both the TEQSA and the PGPA Act. Although the Greens are often accused of adding so called ‘red or green tape', it has always been the policy of the Greens to support only NECESSARY regulation. In the case before us today, the regulation is no longer necessary, so we support Schedule 5.

Perhaps most surprising is the increase in indexation for the Australian Research Council, which would not only see an increase in funding for the 2015/16 and 16/17 financial years, but sees funding extended out into the forward estimates. It is pleasing to see the government slowly accepting the reality that you need a well funded university research sector to power a modern knowledge economy.

Indeed the Greens have been calling for such an investment in university research for years. If our economy is to transition away from the 19th century industries of coal and carbon, and move into era of advanced manufacturing, information technology and renewable energy, we need to put a robust public research program at its core.

We need to unwind the series of cuts into our research sector, which go as far back as the Gillard government in 2012 when the Sustainable Research Excellence grants were slashed in MYEFO. We need to ensure that both our research block grants and competitive grants see an increase in overall funding. We need to stop hacking into our research organisations like the CSIRO and ensure that programs like the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy aren't held hostage by government, so that scientists and researchers have the program stability they need to do their job with confidence. And we need to ensure that thought bubbles and captain's picks like the Lomborg Consensus centre, which bring our entire research sector into disrepute, never see the light of day.

So while I commend the government's actions today, and the Greens will support the increase in funding for the ARC, it is insufficient to the task that confronts us. We hope the government will come back with a far more comprehensive program to back up their innovation nation rhetoric.

However, despite the benefits identified, the Greens have a serious reservation with this Bill. It is disappointing to see the inclusion of Torrens University as a Table B provider. Torrens University, as many in the chamber may know, is a part of Laureate International Universities and a private for-profit institution. As a Table B provider, Torrens would be eligible for research block grants, post-graduate scholarships and a variety of other types of public funding.

Has the government learnt nothing from the debacle in our VET sector? Public funding and for-profit education institutions do not mix. The incentives do not line up, for the chief outcomes of the higher education sector: qualifications, training, research, teaching; are so difficult to quantify and diverse in their qualities that the profit incentive, even with regulation, almost invariably leads to rorting.

Look at how the dodgy RTO's in the VET sector have cut every corner to maximise profit at the expense of education outcomes. With what confidence does the Minister say that this will not happen at Torrens?

The inquiry into the for-profit VET sector by the Education and Employment References Committee found that "expanding a demand driven entitlement to the private sector to access Commonwealth subsidies for bachelor and sub-bachelor degree programs wound entail unacceptable risk to the reputation of Australian higher education. "

Now while I acknowledge that this bill does not yet expand access to HELP loans for Torrens, as it is not suggesting Torrens University be classed as a Table A provider, has the Minister looked at any evidence as to what the effect of for-profit entities receiving public grants will be on the integrity of our research sector and for current and future research students at for-profit providers? I intend to ask questions of the Minister on this exact point.

The question must also be asked, if the money is available to expand grants to a for-profit provider, why not instead put this money back into the public system? We know our public universities have a world class research reputation, we know that they have multiple safeguards that protect the integrity of research and we know that unlike for-profit providers, they will in fact spend all their money on research instead of skimming off a profit margin. Putting public revenue into our established public universities is simply a smarter and safer way to spend taxpayer money.

If we could go back in time, to before the National Partnership Agreement that locked in the contestability model for VET and TAFE, to before the roll out of VET-FEE HELP to for-profit providers, and put a stop to the appalling RTO behaviour plaguing the VET sector, we would. Today we have an opportunity to do that, by preventing the first encroachment of the private contestability logic on our university system.

There are many things that the Greens like about this Bill. We support the expansion of HELP to select New Zealand citizens, we support the regulatory adjustment to TEQSA and we support the increased funding for the ARC. But as long as this Bill sets the precedent for public funding of the for-profit business model in the university sector, it is deeply flawed. I call on this chamber to support the Greens amendment removing Schedule 2.

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