V-cs hope new minister will slash expensive red tape

March 10, 2006

Australia's vice-chancellors are to tackle new federal Education Minister Julie Bishop over what they regard as excessive red tape.

University leaders say they have been troubled by over-regulation for the past five years, and plan to raise the issue at their first meeting with the minister.

Federal grants have declined as a proportion of university incomes while government intervention in campus decision-making has increased.

John Mullarvey, chief executive of the Australian Vice-chancellors'

Committee, said the results of a study to identify the main areas where regulation had increased would be presented to Ms Bishop at the meeting.

"We will be suggesting ways to pull back on regulation without undermining government programmes," Mr Mullarvey said. "We hope Ms Bishop will find ways to do this for universities."

The study revealed 14 areas where new government regulations had imposed costly burdens on higher education institutions. These included the so-called voluntary student union law passed in December that prohibits universities from charging students a service fee. That decision will cost universities A$160 million (£68 million) in lost revenue each year from July. Also imposed last year were harsh industrial relations regulations that apply to universities only.

On top of this, there are restriction on university freedom to shut down unpopular courses, eliminate non-performing research assets and close uneconomic campuses. Recent government intervention in the allocation of research grants deeply alarmed the academic community. "This is a government that talks markets but prefers control," one vice-chancellor said.

Others have protested at the requirement they must enrol students in precise numbers in subjects according to an agreement each university has with the Education Department. They say this means they cannot take account of student choices or the demand for particular courses.

Di Yerbury, who has just stepped down as AVCC president and vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, said that despite claims by former Education Minister Brendan Nelson that he wanted to reduce red tape, his reforms had increased the intrusion and associated costs considerably.

"Macquarie gets not much more than a quarter of its income from the Government," Professor Yerbury said. "Yet the more successfully entrepreneurial we are, the more regulated we are. We've had to employ extra staff each year just to handle the additional regulatory aspects."

Vice-chancellors say the time-consuming task of meeting government demands is made more complex because universities are also required to comply with a range of state and federal acts. These vary from new tax laws to anti-discrimination acts, from privacy and public record requirements to heritage rules.

The AVCC lists 99 laws, regulations and "other instruments" that apply to Queensland universities alone. And these do not include other laws and regulations specific to individual universities in that state.

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