Australian accord proposals ‘will tie administrators’ hands’

Landmark report has generated applause but could deny vice-chancellors a free hand

July 26, 2023
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While the Universities Accord’s interim report has elicited enthusiasm from vice-chancellors, many of its suggestions threaten their autonomy.

The two-year extension to universities’ “funding floor” obliges them to spend unused teaching subsidies on support programmes for “equity” students. Australian National University policy specialist Andrew Norton said this would tie administrators’ hands and undermine the recommendation’s main goal of limiting staff cuts during what would probably be a temporary downturn in demand.

“[You] cannot redeploy a lecturer in accounting to provide mental health services,” he observed, adding that universities were not currently required to “acquit” their spending at the proposed level of detail. “Is [this] going to create yet more red-tape reporting requirements?”

The government’s pledge to recruit more higher education experience on to university governing councils could also be considered meddlesome. And a mooted levy on international students’ fees is one of the few ideas to attract outright criticism.

The Group of Eight warned of “unintended consequences”, while Universities Australia was sceptical of a “quick-fix solution” to the “ongoing vulnerability” of research funding.

Another proposal could see rural institutions federated in a “National Regional University”. Charles Sturt University vice-chancellor Renée Leon said a “proper study” was needed “before this policy gets too many legs”. University of Newcastle vice-chancellor Alex Zelinsky said “there has to be something in it for the institutions, because we’re all operating on very thin margins”.

Ant Bagshaw, senior adviser with LEK Consulting, said regional universities should be the biggest supporters of a report proposing “a pendulum swing” away from market-based approaches. “The accord has recognised that the market system doesn’t work for large parts of the higher education sector,” he said.

“A more planned and centrally controlled system, lived out through a national regional university, is a boon to providers which have struggled to recruit and retain students – particularly international cohorts.”

The report also considers limiting universities’ discretion to cross-subsidise their activities, and pressing them to train their teaching staff more effectively. A proposed tertiary education commission to advise the government and oversee the reforms would also work as a “pricing authority”, negotiating agreements with each university.

“Greater diversity and innovation in institutions is unlikely to emerge without proactive government intervention,” the report observes.

La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar said a commission would be needed to plan and coordinate the changes proposed in the report. Sources said a commission could make university leadership jobs far less appealing by reducing administrative discretion.

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Seriously? That's the photo you choose to illustrate this article?