Back to the future: do we need a universities commission?

The idea of a universities commission has been floated recently – but is it a good idea? Universities image from www.shutterstock.com

There’s been a push recently in university circles for a new body to help govern the sector and act as a buffer between the universities and government.

Champions of the idea point to the Universities Commission created under Menzies as a model that could provide governance for the sector as a whole, less directly controlled buy the Minister in Canberra.

As two vice-chancellors, Greg Craven and Glyn Davis recently wrote, a revived universities commission would “allow government - Labor or Liberal - to set basic directions for higher education but allow an expert body to build the policy details in a coherent way.” Their suggested commission would have a broad mandate to allocate government grants and set student charges.

However, last week, Universities Australia rejected a proposal to set up such a body, citing concerns about additional red-tape.

Despite this, the notion of some form of semi-autonomous expert commission or “buffer” body deserves serious consideration. With less than a year until the next federal election now is a good time to discuss it.

A historic model

The federal government first took charge of university funding in 1957 just as the modern mass higher education system was emerging in Australia.

For the next thirty years, Canberra ran policy and funding through the Universities Commission, later called the Tertiary Education Commission when its brief was extended to cover vocational education.

The Tertiary Education Commission was inside government but partly independent of the minister of the day. It built strong expertise, published many reports, encouraged public discussion and took the long view.

In many ways the country was well served. However, over time the Commission moved closer to the sector that it was meant to regulate and this proved its downfall.

When reforming minister John Dawkins took over in 1987 he knew the Commission would oppose the more far-reaching changes he planned. In a stroke he abolished it.

The Minister went on to merge universities and colleges of advanced education in a single system, boost student numbers in higher education by 50%, introduce HECS, whereby students paid part of the cost of their tuition, create the Australian Research Council, and shape a more professional and strategic university leadership.

Too close to the fire

It is unlikely the Tertiary Education Commission would have made any of those changes. The Dawkins reforms have lasted, suggesting the Minister has had the better of the argument in all respects.

But the outcome was a changed regime in which the Minister’s office, together with the relevant federal department, directly administered higher education policy.

The current higher education department has an excellent statistical capacity and runs the system in cost-effective manner with a small number of competent officers. But it is a creature of the Minister, not a buffer body between sector and Minister as the Commission once was.

In theory, this creates greater instrumental effectiveness, but that greater effectiveness is difficult to realise in practice.

The direct relationship between central regulator and higher education sector is more abrasive than the old relationship buffered by the Commission. Every federal initiative has potential political costs that must be carried directly by the Minister.

This structure actually inhibits federal action rather than enhancing it, unless you have another Dawkins in charge.

It also reinforces the limitation of any highly politicised system of regulation: short-termism. Ministers and governments, unlike arms-length commissions, face the ballot box. They are little interested in long term planning.

And big issues like the unification of policy on vocational education and higher education are not tackled — in fact the pre-1987 Tertiary Education Commission was more advanced on that issue than is government in Canberra today.

The ministerial effect

Ministers since Dawkins have played their role in differing ways, each with their own nuances and colour. Broadly, there are only three types of higher education minister.

One: The Bismarkian reformer, glorying in the scope of the mega-role, as Dawkins did. Two: The symbolic reformer, that makes a few real changes that are each closely managed to minimise the political fallout, coupled to a lot of spin. Three: The do nothing.

No minister since Dawkins has played the Dawkins part. All have taken up positions as type two or three. Brendan Nelson was a particularly good example of type two.

The outcome is a top down CEO-style higher education system that is timid about building capacity, and about structural change, and unable to take the long view. The 2008 Bradley Report, the Rudd/Gillard reform moment, was small beer after Dawkins.

Canberra takes in a narrow range of inputs in policy, sponsors less research on trends and prospects than at any time since 1957, and treats the higher education sector as a set of vested interests to be managed — and divided against each other — not as its partners in a common national enterprise.

To its credit the government has tackled standards and accreditation by forming the Tertiary Education Qualifications and Standards Authority, a body not unlike the old Commission in form: autonomous on a day-to-day basis while open to policy instruction from the Minister. But TEQSA’s brief is limited in range, while its focus on standards has the potnetial to intrude deeply into acadmeic freedoms.

Arguably, a narrow brief that runs too deep will lead to a lopsided regulatory system in which federal power is unduly focused on some areas and neglects others. Prohibition, rather than capacity building and forward planning, will dominate government agendas.

The suggestion from Vice-Chancellors Greg Craven and Glyn Davis is that a revived commission would absorb TEQSA. But not all VCs support the proposal as the recent Universities Australia decision shows.

Alternative options

If a single regulatory authority is unacceptable, an alternative approach is to create a number of specific purpose autonomous authorities in areas under-served by the Dawkins-created policy system.

A plural system would expand the range and expertise of government, while modifying the intrusive potentials of the centre. If it could be also handed the impossible political problem of tuition prices, to be dealt with in consultative and neutral fashion, so much the better.

A Commission devoted to data collection, international comparisons, projections of social and economic demand, forward planning, medium-term capacity building and public discussion would add something currently missing from the mix.

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