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The Value of Higher Education

One of the big questions for me about this bill is: are these changes needed for the higher education sector? I and a number of other people do not believe that they are. This is yet another plank in the government's attack on industrial relations conditions in this country and it promotes their ideological campaign. There is strong consensus on this issue across the university and TAFE sector, with agreement among the Vice-Chancellors Committee, the AVCC; the tertiary unions, both the NTEU and the CSA; the academic and general staff; and students that these changes are not necessary.

The only driver for these changes is, I believe, the government's hardline ideological position. They are again pushing their extreme agenda, in the face of widespread opposition in the sector, in the face of the analysis and the expertise available to the higher education community and in the face of the needs and aspirations of the sector, its productivity achievements and its central role in providing education to build the future of Australia.

The university staff and administration have already demonstrated that they have no difficulty negotiating and reaching agreements on awards and conditions. They already have flexible workplaces, with high levels of productivity and agreements negotiated to meet the very complex demands of academic schedules and the requirements of both students and research partners. The universities are reluctantly going along with these so-called reforms, essentially because they realise that they have no choice. They are basically being held to ransom by these funding arrangements.
If the government were serious about the future of our economy and the long-term sustainability of our standard of living, they would be investing in higher education and research and they would not be fussing about these so-called reforms. They would be growing the new economy and investing in our future on the back of the resources boom, rather than putting all their economic eggs in the one 'exploitation of finite primary resources' basket. We need to be growing new industries through innovative research and forward-looking investment. We need to be growing and adapting to the needs of the new economy. We need to be addressing our current skills shortages and gaps and making intelligent predictions about the needs of future Australian industries.

Australia has at many times in the past been a world leader in research and technology, through cutting-edge research in our universities and CSIRO. In many cases we have squandered these opportunities through government and industry short-sightedness and left it to other countries to develop the new industries based on our technological breakthroughs. Research in this country is littered with examples of this. We continue to see this government throttling the higher education sector, and in the last week we have heard about the difficulties with CSIRO. We are continually hearing the rhetoric about linking industrial relations reforms to productivity, yet here we have a sector that is showing distinct productivity gains. There is no need for this sort of reform.

The NTEU has recently taken a complaint to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, and the International Labour Organisation, ILO-which you have already heard about tonight-on behalf of Australian university staff. They have taken this extraordinary step because they are concerned about the impacts of these changes on their ability to compete in the international market. They are concerned that the international reputation of Australian universities, which currently is very high, and which rests on their ability to provide teaching and research that meets international standards, is being compromised by this legislation.

UNESCO conventions, to which Australia is a signatory, cover the professional standards expected of higher education research and teaching. The higher education workplace relations requirements-the HEWRRs-contravene, we believe, the UNESCO standards outlined in the 1997 recommendation on the status of higher education teaching personnel. In particular they contravene article 17 on institutional autonomy; article 40 on entry to the academic profession; article 46 on security of employment; article 22 on institutional accountability; articles 26 and 27 on civil rights, academic freedom, publication rights and the international coverage of information; and articles 52, 53 and 56 on freedom of association and the negotiation of terms and conditions of employment. The bill also contravenes the ILO standards, particularly convention C98 on the right to organise and collectively bargain, convention C15 on collective bargaining, convention C87 on freedom of association and the right to organise and convention C135 on workers' representatives.

At the request of Senator Nettle, I move:

Omit all words after "that", substitute:

"the Senate rejects this bill and expects the Government to:
(a) desist from interfering with the independence of universities;
(b) increase public funding of Australia's higher education sector;
(c) recognise that University staff should be entitled to collectively bargain with Universities, without prescriptive Government interference; and
(d) refrain from insisting on its ideological industrial relations agenda being applied to Universities".

Australian Universities are independent of government and they are proud of this independence. Academic independence is fundamental to the kind of open debate which is the cornerstone of civil society in our democracy. Research independence is crucial to the ability of our universities to pursue excellence in scientific research, which is the basis for technological innovation. Australian universities are viewed under law as constitutional corporations. They are dependent on government for core funding, but the government does not employ staff on their behalf-it accepts no liability for staff salaries. Yet it believes it has a right to intervene in how universities manage their staff and it does so in a way that threatens the excellence of our universities, undermines their international standing and jeopardises the gains they have made in productivity and their reputation as centres of excellence.

This bill aims to eliminate the rights, roles and functions of collective representation in Australian universities. This is entirely driven by the government's extreme IR agenda and bears no relationship whatsoever to the needs of the sector. This hardline ideology threatens the very institutions that are the cornerstone of intellectual life and scientific rigour within Australian society. Australian universities need to be able to ensure the managerial and professional autonomy of their teaching and research staff. This is what the UNESCO standards clearly state, and this position is strongly supported by the Australian Greens. Australian universities have not sought the use of Australian workplace agreements, AWAs, but this bill mandates that all institutions must offer AWAs to their staff.

We support the opposition of this by the NTEU and applaud their efforts to stand up for the health and reputation of Australian universities. We believe that the Australian vice-chancellors, within their universities and through the actions of the AVCC, have demonstrated that they are concerned about the wellbeing of their universities and that of their staff, their students, and their research collaborators and partners. They have shown that they are willing to openly enter into negotiations with the unions that represent general and academic staff to reach collective agreements that are in the interests of all parties and that contribute to the productivity of our universities and the international standing of Australia as a provider of excellence in education and research. Freedom of association and professional autonomy are fundamental to science, research and innovation. These are core professional standards that are at risk through this bill. The Australian Greens oppose this bill. I seek leave to incorporate Senator Nettle's speech on the second reading.

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