Release type: Speech


Second Reading Speech - Higher Education Support Amendment (Removal Of The Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements And National Governance Protocols Requirements And Other Matters) Bill 2008

House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra

I am pleased to introduce legislation that will be a nail in the coffin for the Howard Government’s extreme and unfair Work Choices workplace relations agenda and remove unwarranted, bullying government interference over our universities and other higher education providers.

This Bill is about getting the heavy foot of the Liberal Party off the throat of our universities.

This Bill amends theHigher Education Support Act 2003by repealing section 33-17. This section of the Act currently requires higher education providers to meet the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (known to most as the HEWRRs) and the National Governance Protocols as a condition of their Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for student places.

Failure to meet the HEWRRs and the Protocols currently results in a reduction of a provider’s Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. This Bill will remove that condition.

The HEWRRS required universities to implement the Howard Government’s ideologically driven workplace relations agenda. The Governance Protocols required adherence to a one-size-fits-all model of how to run a university.

These were the worst manifestations of the distrust that the Howard/Costello Government had for our universities. They thought they knew best how to run workforce management in universities and how to govern those institutions. This was another manifestation of their born to rule mentality and their contempt for their fellow Australians.

Our higher education providers were expected to run things the Howard/Costello way – or face severe financial penalties that reduced core funding for teaching and learning. This is the legacy of the current Leader of the Opposition and the current Deputy Leader of the Opposition to universities.

At the same time that it was ordering universities around, the previous government failed on the very matter it had direct responsibility for. It presided over a massive decline in public investment for our universities. From 1995 to 2004 while other OECD countries increased public investment in tertiary education by an average of 49 per cent, on the Howard/Costello watch public investment in Australia was cut by 4 per cent. Their legacy has been to leave our higher education system lagging the rest of the world.

The legislation I am introducing today will put an end to the HEWRRs and the Protocols and with it the distrust that characterised the Howard Government relationship with universities.

Consistent with our commitment to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements, the requirement that universities offer AWAs to employees, which is one key element of the HEWRRs, will cease. Higher education providers will be subject to the same laws as all other employers. The Rudd Labor Government will trust higher education providers to manage their own industrial relations within those laws. We won’t be telling them what to do.

Removing the HEWRRs will also give needed funding certainty to the higher education sector.

It is clear that these requirements have impinged upon higher education providers’ freedom to carve out distinctive missions. Furthermore they diverted energy and resources away from where they are most needed – the development and delivery of high quality teaching and research.

While the Governance Protocols will be removed as a condition of funding, the Government will of course encourage universities to pursue good governance practices and increase productivity and efficiency. This will be built into our more collaborative relationship with universities.

In addition to these timely changes, a number of technical adjustments have been made in this Bill.

In relation to the approval of higher education providers, this Bill amends the Act so that the approval of a provider that no longer meets certain criteria may be revoked. For example, it the provider no longer has its central management and control in Australia, this Bill enables for its approval to be withdrawn.

The Bill also amends the arrangements for quality auditing of higher education providers. Currently, the only quality auditing body in this country is the Australian Universities Quality Agency. This Bill amends the Act to allow the Commonwealth to designate additional bodies to perform this role, such as State and Territory government accreditation authorities. Further, the amendment will enable the Commonwealth to specify the higher education providers that those bodies can audit. This includes the class of provider and the state or territory where their accreditation lies.Currently, if a body were designated to conduct audits, it would be able to audit all higher education providers, including Universities. This Bill will set limits on the providers that can be audited. This also is an efficiency measure. By State and Territory government accreditation authorities conducting audits at the same time as they currently conduct their normal registration and approval processes, the administrative burden on private providers will be reduced.

The approach has been subject to consultation with private providers and a trial process with two State accreditation agencies (Queensland and Victoria). The approach has been well received.

Importantly, the Bill also includes the addition of a transitional mechanism so that existing funding commitments made to providers under the Collaboration and Structural Reform Fund can be honoured now that the new Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund has been established.

This Bill before the House is a clear expression of the Government’s strong commitment to abolishing Australian Workplace Agreements and reducing the constraints upon universities’ autonomy. It will also further improve the operation of the Act.

The Rudd Labor Government’s commitment is to a strong, diverse higher education sector that makes an essential contribution to our national prosperity. We look forward to rebuilding the relationship between Government and higher education providers based on trust and mutual respect.

Mr Speaker, I commend the Bill to the House.