Release type: Speech

Date:

Address to the Universities Australia Annual Higher Education Conference

Ministers:

The Hon Julia Gillard MP
Minister for Education. Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
Minister for Social Inclusion
Deputy Prime Minister

It’s great to be back at this important higher education policy forum.Last year at this forum I announced the Rudd Government’s initial response to the Bradley Review.Today I want to report on far we have come since then.

In last year’s Budget I, and my colleague Kim Carr, announced a substantial series of reforms backed by $5.4 billion in new funding for higher education and research.

We did this because we knew that in an era when investment in knowledge and skills is the ultimate determinant of national and individual prosperity, Australia could not afford to continue loosing ground against other nations.

The magnitude of the Rudd Government’s commitment is clear given that our budgetary response came in the middle of the global financial crisis.

A commitment to equity – through the low SES loading and outreach programs

A commitment to access – through the expansion of opportunity through the student centred system.

A commitment to sustainability – through an indexation increase that recognises the real costs that universities face.

A commitment to research – through the move to fund the full cost of research over time.

And a commitment to quality teaching – by rewarding high quality performance and establishing the new national regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

Last year, and at last budget, I crystallized the approach this Government has taken to reform by delivering ‘funding that meets the demands made by students, coupled with exacting targets, rigorous quality assurance, full transparency and an emphasis on equity’

Today I want to outline our continued efforts to deliver the system architecture necessary to achieve improvements in equity, quality and transparency.

EQUITY AND QUALITY ARE THE SAME THING

To become a more dynamic, innovative and prosperous nation, we need people with the skills, knowledge and ability that a university education provides. In doing so we have to draw upon the talents of people currently locked out of our universities.

This is what our equity agenda is all about. I simply don’t accept the proposition that a child from a poor home can’t make it to medical school, get an LLB or collect a PhD. It’s our job as politicians and educators to ensure we do everything we can to overcome such disadvantage.

That’s a big ask, and success won’t come overnight, but success can be achieved.

But our moves to open up the system alone aren’t enough. Increased access needs to be coupled with a stronger focus on quality.

We will not improve a student’s life chances unless we can ensure an educational experience that is engaging and challenging. We also know that employers consistently demand and need graduates with a breadth and depth of knowledge – a fact which will become more important still as the economy continues to recover.

As a Government we are pleased that all universities have taken our equity agenda seriously and are putting in place the changes needed to deliver on our ambitious targets in this area.

Many universities have also indicated that they intend to grow, taking advantage of our historic decision to remove the cap on domestic undergraduate enrolments.

Indicative data from DEEWR suggests that universities have responded quickly to the new system and suggest that over enrolment in universities will reach 7.5 percent, an increase of around 45,000 students since 2008.

And what’s more, applications data show that demand for university is increasing fastest among low SES applicants.

In January, 2010 the number of low SES applicants increased by 9.8 percent on January 2009, compared to a 8.2 percent increase in the number of medium SES applicants and 5.4 percent in high SES applicants.

While this shift can be explained by poor employment outcomes among the young, one of the tragic impacts of the global recession, this shift will be reinforced by our substantial low SES loading, which DEEWR estimates will be worth $540 per student this year rising to $1500 in 2012.

We also expect that the $14 million in partnership funding provided this year will be used to develop and expand on the large range of outreach programs that currently exist - programs like ASPIRE at the University of New South Wales – which foster the aspiration needed to achieve in promising students. Or like Uni Reach at Griffith University. Through this program the university works with 11 schools in order to foster aspiration and knowledge about university in students from low SES backgrounds.

And what’s more there is evidence to suggest that lower socio economic students ‘catch up’ to their peers during their university course and as graduates. The 2009 Graduate Pathways Survey, which looks at graduate outcomes five years after graduation, shows employment outcomes of low SES and Indigenous students as comparable to those of other graduates.

The university experience can transform life chances.

To better assist students who need support the most, the Rudd Government remains determined to deliver a fairer student income support system. I thank you for making your sensible and considered views about this question known and for urging the Senate to pass the amended legislation because of your view it will deliver a fairer system.

I know that the period since the May Budget has been one of profound and sometimes difficult policy change. On top of our reform agenda this has also been a year of other big challenges, most notably in international education.

We have all watched with concern at the controversy that has developed in relation to Indian students and the issues that have been highlighted in the public debate.

Legitimate concerns have emerged about quality, about safety, about language competency and about the support for students in the international education sector.

These recent challenges emphasize the pressing need to forge ahead with a core element of the Rudd Government’s higher education reform agenda – quality.

They demonstrate that the Government’s moves to assure quality are not just responding to an educational imperative – they also respond to a human and an economic one.

The Government is taking comprehensive steps to support students, protect Australia’s international reputation and position the sector for sustainability.

  • We’re responding to the issues raised by international students themselves at last September’s roundtable and they will have an ongoing voice in all decisions that concern their welfare.
  • COAG is close to finalising a National International Student Strategy to be adopted later this year.
  • We are working with state and territory authorities to improve safety and crack down on crime.
  • We have already strengthened the ESOS legislation and we will release the findings of the Baird Review soon.
  • And ultimately, TEQSA will be at the heart of any effective response to these issues by bolstering our reputation by assuring quality for all students – domestic and international students alike.

One thing I’m determined to do is to move past a short-term conception of our education sector driven by student throughput towards a more internationalist perspective which values effort, excellence and long term outcomes.

The Rudd Government’s recent changes to migration policy are also an important step forward and will help ensure that the tail does not wag the dog—that our migration system does not dictate the nature of our education system.

Our drive to quality will help us ensure that Australia will become a destination for premium post-compulsory education – benefiting local and international students and ensuring that universities can attract talented international students far into the future.

THE BEST OF THE OLD AND THE NEW

The question we have to answer as a Government is: what should every university student expect from their studies?

This does not mean a move to standardization – we want universities and other higher education providers to continue to diversify and provide potential students with a variety of options for further study.

The answer does lie in establishing minimum quality benchmarks that students and Government should be able to expect of all institutions.

This means, at minimum, an experience that is defined by high quality teaching, which challenges students to intellectually engage and develop the skills, and analytic tools, needed for future work and civic participation.

Like many of you, when it comes to university education I’m a traditionalist. I respect academic rigor. I value the traditional disciplines. I understand the importance of students developing a love for what they learn and the process of learning. But unlike my predecessors in this role I’m not a reactionary or an elitist.

I believe a university degree should be challenging—something that a student has to earn. It should take diligent, sustained effort to achieve a degree qualification.

This is the case in many of our universities and facilities. Providing a quality education is your core business.

Our reform agenda asks you to partner with us to take stock, assess what needs improvement and to develop the plans and tools to lift the quality of teaching, lift the engagement of students and lift the expectations and performance of teachers and researchers.

We need universities to increase their focus on rewarding good teaching.

My goal is to ensure that our academics value the pursuit of excellence in teaching as much as in scholarship and research.

The best and brightest academics should be encouraged to focus on improving and expanding their skills as teachers and they should be rewarded for doing this.

TEQSA

So how is the Government going about this?

While the current quality assurance framework has served Australia well, the Bradley Review of Higher Education identified a need to develop a new approach to underpin both domestic and international confidence in the higher education sector.

It recommended an independent national regulatory body be responsible for regulating all types of tertiary education. The Review team reasoned that a national approach would provide a more effective, streamlined and integrated sector, achieving a sustainable and responsible higher education system in the larger, more diverse and demand driven environment.

The Government is therefore establishing a new national regulatory and quality agency for higher education, TEQSA.

TEQSA will be established this year as an independent body with powers to regulate university and non-university higher education providers, monitor quality and set standards.

Its primary task will be to ensure that students receive a high quality education at any of our higher education providers. TEQSA will register providers, carry out evaluations of standards and performance, protect and quality assure international education and streamline current regulatory arrangements.

It will join together the regulatory activity currently undertaken in the states and territories with the quality assurance activities currently undertaken by the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA). In so doing it will reduce the number of regulatory bodies from 9 (all states and territories plus AUQA) to one.

TEQSA’s approach to regulation will be risk based. The new system will remove regulatory fragmentation.

Providers who previously had to deal with many regulatory agencies across jurisdictions will only have to deal with one. High quality, low risk providers will be able to flourish without unnecessary intrusion.

The Rudd Government's higher education reform agenda introduces a suite of reforms across areas spanning funding, increasing participation and structural changes that will increase institutional autonomy—providing unprecedented scope for universities to determine their own direction through the introduction of demand driven funding.

It is in this context that the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education proposed a more transparent and robust quality assurance system, in which increased institutional autonomy brings with it a stronger focus on making providers accountable for the quality of outcomes.

The Rudd Government’s Budget announcement contained in Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System made a commitment to developing these new arrangements “in close consultation with the sector… within the academic traditions of collegiality, peer review, pre-eminence of disciplines and, importantly, academic autonomy”.

I want to publicly thank all who have participated in the consultations surrounding it so far and especially all the members of the Expert Reference Group for their contribution.

The Government’s aim is to bring TEQSA and the National Regulator for VET together after 2013. This will help provide more seamless regulation for dual sector providers who currently deal with regulatory agencies fragmented across jurisdictions and sectors.

Responsibility for TEQSA will be shared with my colleague, Kim Carr, in line with our portfolio responsibilities.

TEQSA’s establishing legislation will ensure that it will be independent of the Ministers in its daily activities, particularly in relation to its regulatory activities.

TEQSA will be built around principles that ensure transparency.

As part of the move to the new system the Government is also encouraging each university to think anew about its role. Later this year, each university will negotiate a funding compact with the Government:

  • defining its unique mission;
  • describing how its mission will contribute to the Government’s goals for higher education; and
  • setting targets for performance funding.

These mission-based compacts will take effect from 2011. The Government and each institution will agree clear and consistent targets for improvement and reform which will trigger reward payments.

In teaching and learning, this will be done through the Government’s $135 million performance funding arrangements.

This funding will favour universities that deliver quality student engagement and learning outcomes.

And for those institutions who will need additional help from Government – who are struggling to deliver quality in the transition to the new system – we will provide help through targeted structural adjustment funding.

TRANSPARENCY

Those of you who have followed the school reform debate will know that the lynchpin of this reform strategy to raise quality and increase equity is transparency.

Whether we are making the case to Treasury, promoting Australian Universities globally, determining which institutions need support in the transition to the new system, or simply acknowledging the importance of universities to Australia public life and prosperity – robust and easily accessible data about quality is imperative.

Informed student choice is particularly important in the new student centred system – because student choice will impact so much on institutional behaviour.

We want students to make their decisions about where they want to study on the basis of robust information about the quality of education provided at each institution rather than on hearsay, inference from entry requirements or prestige.

In the future Australian universities will be required to publish more information on their courses, campus facilities, support services and, most importantly, the quality of teaching and learning outcomes.

The My School website, which publishes vital information on school activities and achievement has proved an enormous initial success and there are early indications that it is influencing parental decisions about enrolment and staffroom decisions about teaching strategies.

I believe it’s now time for us to consider something similar at the university level.

And so today I announce that the Government will implement a complimentary measure to the My School website a ‘My University’ website which will help inform students about institutions, courses and pathways. It will showcase the quality of Australia’s higher education providers.

It will be developed over time in partnership with the sector and it will commence no later than January 2012.

Information will be provided in an easily accessible form for students and parents, universities will be able to learn from the success of their colleagues and the learning outcomes and the quality of teaching of our universities will become better known in the general community.

We know this is a major undertaking and the expertise of the sector will be vital in providing students and the public with the best information we can about institutional quality and learning outcomes.

CONCLUSION

The Government is pleased that the sector has responded so quickly to the demands of the Government’s equity agenda. We hope that we can rely on the same kind of support in relation to demonstrating and assuring quality through increased transparency and TEQSA.

There are exciting times ahead in higher education. Our reforms in this sector are a central part of our economic and social agenda.

I want to thank you for your effort as partners in the Government’s agenda so far and wish to encourage you to maintain the impetus for reform.

Thank you.