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Taking over universities: will the Commonwealth be a better master than the states?

Traditionally, states have been responsible for universities while the commonwealth holds the purse strings. But that could all change. Higher education image from

Before this year’s federal election, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott promised an approach to higher education policy that would be characterised by “masterly inactivity”.

Since then, education minister Christopher Pyne has ordered a review of the demand-driven funding system, signalled his desire to once again abolish “compulsory” student unionism and is now flagging a possible plan for the federal government to take over control of Australian universities.

If the federal government does take over universities, is this a good or bad thing for Australian higher education?

How things work now

Excepting the Australian National University, Australian universities are created by and answerable to their relevant state or territory government.

However, the Constitution of Australia gives the federal government the real power. Section 96 allows it to grant financial assistance to any state on such terms and conditions as the parliament thinks fit. It also has other powers through Section 51 (treating universities as trading corporations) and Section 81 (appropriating money as it sees fit).

But Section 96 is what controls the flow of money to Australian universities. Funding is conditional on following the related policy provisions. The arrangement works because, by and large, the states and territories are happy to be silent partners. They don’t mind the Commonwealth directing higher education policy, so long as it pays the bill.

This arrangement has led to significant changes in many aspects of higher education policy, most notably those addressing issues of access and equity. In 1974, then-prime minister Gough Whitlam used these federal powers to abolish tuition fees; in 1989, then-higher education minister John Dawkins used it to create the unified national system and HECS; and last year, Julia Gillard to set and fund the current demand-driven system.

Less red tape - or less freedom?

The possibility of the Commonwealth assuming full control of universities has been met with mixed responses within the sector. University of NSW vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer has welcomed the opportunity to reduce bureaucracy and red tape. However, higher education expert Andrew Norton, one of the reviewers of the demand-driven system, is concerned about the possible threat this represents to academic freedom.

If the takeover began and ended with streamlining compliance, there would be few critics. Certainly, some compliance requirements will disappear but most others, such as the need to submit annual reports to state parliament, would just be redirected.

In fact, many of the over-compliance issues facing our universities can and are being dealt with without the need for a takeover, via the review of higher education regulation. It found that the “typical” Australian university in 2011 spent more than 2,000 days of staff time and up to $900,000 in meeting federal (not state) reporting requirements.

In other words, the federal government is already addressing the issue of red tape and bureaucracy and hasn’t needed to take over our universities to do so.

The potential for academic freedom to be compromised is of far greater concern. At first glance there seems little to worry about in this regard. As Andrew Norton observed in his own article, the legislation enabling the current Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TESQA) has already created a significant concentration of power. So far, the federal government has chosen not to exercise it.

Australian governments have traditionally had a benign attitude to the expression of academic freedom. Both our universities and our government are founded on the broad principles adopted from the UK’s Westminster systems and its associated use of Royal Charters to create universities.

Like cities, a Royal Charter gives a university certain freedoms to operate autonomously.

For example, right now in the UK a debate is brewing over the issue of gender segregation. Despite it being an area in which the British government holds a particular opinion (it thinks the universities are wrong), it has not interfered directly, respecting their freedoms in this regard.

Similarly in Australia it would be highly unusual for a federal government to directly intervene in a university’s operational affairs.

Changing the face of higher education

However, there is another way in which the Commonwealth could use a take-over of Australian universities to fundamentally change the way in which they operate. In 2006, then-education minister Julie Bishop tried financial incentives to encourage universities to “improve” their governance and become more corporate in their behaviour. The attempt was only partly successful. With a complete takeover however, changes to university governance could be more explicit, immediate and potent.

A key condition under this latest proposal by the Commonwealth to assume full responsibility for running universities is that it has a greater say in appointing university council members.

This is a more likely and potentially greater threat to academic freedom than directly controlling what universities and academics say, or do, in the pursuit of knowledge. Despite oft-repeated concerns regarding managerialism and the increasing marketisation of education, universities by and large remain institutions of genuine intellectual curiosity, freedom and dissent. This is in no small part due to the composition of their councils.

In addition to industry and business leaders, councils typically include representatives from the academic staff, professional staff and student communities. It is likely that under the new arrangements, this diverse community would be dramatically rationalised.

The bigger purpose

According to the federal government, the distinctive purposes of our universities are to educate persons, create and advance knowledge and apply this knowledge for the betterment of society. To these ends, the federal government seeks to support “quality, diversity and equity of access” and “free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research”.

If the genuine reason for a full takeover by the Commonwealth is to reduce duplication and red tape, certainly these aims will be more easily achieved.

But if the real motivation is to corporatise university councils, there is a great danger that our universities will lose sight of their true purpose.

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