House of Representatives

Higher Education Support Amendment (Removal of Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements and National Governance Protocols Requirements and Other Matters) Bill 2008

Second Reading Speech

Senator SHERRY (Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law)

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The Bill amends the Higher "Education" "Support" Act 2003 by repealing section 33-17. Currently, this section of the Act requires that higher "education" providers meet the Higher "Education" Workplace Relations Requirements and the National Governance Protocols as a condition of their Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. The Commonwealth Grant Scheme provides funding for a higher "education" provider's student places.

Currently, failure to meet the Requirements and the Protocols results in a reduction of a provider's Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. This Bill will amend the Act to remove that condition.

The Bill will also make minor, yet important technical amendments that will improve the operation of the Act.

A real benefit of removing the Requirements and the Protocols is that it will provide additional funding certainty to the higher "education" sector. It does not reduce a provider's Commonwealth Grant Scheme Funding. Rather, it removes the current condition on that funding. Importantly, it will also clearly convey the Government's commitment to abolishing Australian Workplace Agreements.

It is clear that these requirements have impinged upon universities' autonomy and their removal will be welcomed. By cutting this unnecessary layer of red tape, higher "education" providers will be freed from restrictive, bureaucratic requirements and practices that have diverted attention and resources away from where they are most needed - the development and delivery of high quality higher "education".

Moreover, the "amendment" to the Act contained in this Bill is timely, as the next enterprise bargaining round in the sector commences shortly. Twenty-four providers have collective agreements with a nominal expiry date before 31 August 2008.

This Bill, by providing the sector with certainty in relation to the standing of the Higher "Education" Workplace Relations Requirements, will assist the agreement-making process for all parties involved, allowing them to negotiate the terms and conditions that best suit them.

The Government believes that universities should be subject to the same workplace relations laws as all other employers. These amendments give effect to that policy.

While the National Governance Protocols will be removed as a condition of funding, the Government will continue to encourage universities to pursue good governance practices and increase productivity and efficiency.

This will include pursuing options for a non-legislative focus on governance standards. These can be considered in the light of the forthcoming report of the review of the Protocols, by the Ministerial Council on "Education", Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

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, if 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. Under current arrangements, the Australian Universities Quality Agency is the only specified quality auditing body. 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.

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 Senate is a clear expression of this 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 Government is committed to a strong and vigorous higher "education" sector that is capable of making an essential contribution to our national development. The Government will be introducing further measures to implement our "Education" Revolution in relation to higher "education" in due course.

Debate (on motion by Senator Sherry ) adjourned.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day