Australian tertiary education commission ‘could become a monster’

Best way to stop proposed oversight body going rogue is to avoid setting it up in the first place, conference hears

February 28, 2024
House of Fear. Gelendzhik, Russia
Source: iStock/Alexander Denisenko

The Australian tertiary education commission (Atec) proposed in the Universities Accord’s final report poses a clear and present danger to institutional autonomy, some experts have warned.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said the only sure way to prevent a commission from turning into a “monster” was to avoid creating it. “If you don’t want this to overreach, you don’t set it up in the first place,” Professor Norton told the Universities Australia conference in Canberra.

“It’s not a monster in the minds of the accord panel, but it may well be a monster by the time it’s legislated and taken over by someone who’s got a very fixed view what the sector should look like.”

Atec’s establishment is considered pivotal to the implementation of many of the report’s recommendations. The commission’s initial remit would include allocating funding, determining subsidy rates, planning, developing policy, collecting data, ensuring accountability and negotiating with individual universities.

Professor Norton said the potential benefits of a commission were outweighed by the risks, although it might be possible to mitigate them.

“It might be that you can put clear statute limitations on what it can do, or [it can] only do things in special circumstances and emergencies [like] Covid, and that will put some constraints on the culture and definitely on the practice of the commission,” he said.

UNSW Sydney chancellor David Gonski expressed similar concerns, while stressing that he generally supported the proposal for a commission.

“[If] it’s manned or womaned by people who are perhaps not [particularly] keen on autonomy…you could find that it really does become over-regulation,” he told the conference. “I think that the government has to be very careful…how they populate it, and what they give to it to do.”

Alison Johns, chief executive of UK-headquartered advisory body Advance HE, warned that the proposal to put the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) under the commission’s umbrella could lead to duplication.

“There’s a risk of regulatory burden unless some serious thinking is done right at the beginning about what you want your regulatory approaches to be,” said Ms Johns, a former head of policy with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Teqsa commissioner Adrienne Nieuwnhuis said the regulatory “ecosystem” for tertiary education was complex. “It could become more so if…it’s not managed very carefully,” she warned.

But Victorian Skills Authority chief executive Craig Robertson said a commission could reduce regulatory burden if it did its job properly. He said Australia faced the same problem as other countries that had “swallowed the neoliberalism pill” and developed market-based funding models for previously government-provided services such as training people and finding them jobs.

“A couple of things might go wrong [and authorities say], ‘We’ve got a quality problem, so we’ve got to intervene.’ If…we fund the right institutional forms, they can have quality aspirations and you should be able to lift the regulatory load.”

University of Notre Dame Australia vice-chancellor Francis Campbell said the model proposed for the commission gave it “a huge amount of potential fiscal power”, and questioned whether such an arrangement would be acceptable to politicians – particularly in the opposition Liberal Party.

Professor Norton, a former adviser to 1990s Liberal training minister David Kemp, said the party of that era would have baulked at the Atec proposal. “They wouldn’t like this kind of interventionist approach,” he said. “Now, I think, partly because…a distrust of the higher education sector has developed, they may well go for it because you give them potentially more power.

“It might start with what [is proposed] in this report, but the legislation could obviously be changed. A future government may decide the commission can do xy and z, but it can’t fund this list of courses that we think are a waste of time and won’t lead to employment.”

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