The Commission Conundrum

The interim report of Australia’s higher education Accord group – the group set up to do that once-in-a-generation review of the system – is out now. The report is visionary, ambitious.  It takes a broad sweep. It is idealistic. The devil, of course, is still waiting, quietly licking its lips with anticipation, in the corner, in its usual place – in the detail.

The report is pitched at a high level.  I leave it to others to address the devil, to work out the detail of how institutions and the government will manage the tensions that will inevitably arise between the Accord’s ideals and the principles and conventions that have evolved in Australian HE over the last 35 years – Andrew Norton’s recent comment on the risks to institutional autonomy from the Accord’s focus on a more mission-led, directed system is just the first salvo. As an outside observer, I am in no position to assess how those matters may play out.  

Except …

Except, there is one matter in the Accord’s wish list that I, as someone from a small tertiary education system on the far eastern shores of the Tasman, I am very well qualified to comment on. And that is the proposal for a tertiary education commission. I have written on this matter before, twice, when it was still yet to hit the Accord group’s agenda, when it was no more than a matter raised in two (very influential) submissions in the first round of the Accord group’s information gathering.

Here is my take – as a New Zealander. As someone who left a senior leadership role in a university in 2002, just as the discussion of a new tertiary education commission for NZ was underway and who arrived as a tertiary education manager in the Ministry of Education just in time to become embroiled in the shaping of our Tertiary Education Commission – the TEC – at its birth and in the subsequent struggles.

To recap ….

The NZ equivalent of the Accord group was the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission (TEAC), set up by government in 2000 to take a once in a generation review of the system. TEAC was created by an incoming government in response to widespread public dissatisfaction with aspects of the direction of tertiary education policy and reflecting a loss of sector confidence in the performance of the Ministry of Education in managing the system.

After an exhaustive 18 month process, TEAC recommended the creation of the TEC, using language strikingly similar to that used in the Accord’s interim report to describe its Australian version of a tertiary education commission. TEAC proposed a new approach to setting the strategic direction for the system, linked to a new provider-planning process that required providers to demonstrate to the TEC how they aim to advance the goals of the government’s tertiary education strategy … in fact, what the Accord might term “negotiat[ing] new mission-based compacts with institutions to deliver against local, regional and national priorities and needs”.

TEAC wanted the TEC to have independence from the government, to have a role in policy advice and to be responsible for allocating the funding to providers on the basis of those negotiated mission-based compacts[1]

All rather similar to the narrative in section of the Accord Interim Report.

Trading off …

Independence from government. And responsible for charting the direction of the system through expert advice, oversight coordination, pricing, funding … Big tasks.

But machinery of government is a tricky business. In democracies like Australia and New Zealand, the ultimate mechanism for accountability to the public, taxpayers, is through the electoral system. If the public loses confidence in any arm of government funded services, in the public service, the public can exercise its right to dismiss that government at the next general election. So, no government will delegate policy-making rights in a critical and potentially contentious area (such as education and skills) to an autonomous body. Apart from anything else, when things turn ugly, the public will always turn on ministers and expect the government to fix it up; ministers would inevitably intervene. Commissioners, experts, mandarins, are simply not subject to electoral accountability.

It’s a simple trade-off.  More independence leads to less power, less decision-making responsibility.  More responsibility, more decision-making powers equals less independence.

That’s true in NZ. It’s equally true in Australia.  Read the introduction to the 1985 review of the structure of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission[2].

How did that work out in New Zealand …

But the TEC we got in New Zealand is decidedly not what TEAC asked for. In his retrospective evaluation of the TEAC process, one of TEAC’s Commissioners, Jonathan Boston, a public policy academic, states the recommendation was for the TEC to be independent of government but to have a role in policy advice. In effect, they were asking the government to create the TEC as an agency that would set the direction for the sector, but also to be independent from government. They wanted the independent TEC to have powers, including a longer-term policy role that would, in effect, hold government to account.

That’s an expectation of exemption from the independence/powers trade-off. That’s not just having cake and eating it. That’s having the whole feast and eating it.

What we ended up with is a TEC that:

  • is what in NZ is called a ‘Crown agent’, meaning that the minister can direct the organisation and that the TEC must give effect to government policy[3] – so independence was sacrificed
  • has no policy role – policy advice is provided to the minister by the Ministry of Education – so the policy role was sacrificed
  • creates operational policy to give effect to the government’s policy decisions
  • applies that operational policy to divide up the government’s funding pots among institutions
  • agrees what are now called ‘investment plans’ with providers – a much lighter, much simplified form of the original over-engineered proposal for institutional charters and profiles
  • monitors the performance of every provider of funded post-secondary education.

The TEC is responsible for almost everything. Everything except quality assurance and registration of providers. And except policy.

Make no mistake; the NZ version of the TEC is an operational agency, not a strategy agency.

It is now working well. But its early years were characterised by a lack of role clarity and by consequent inter-agency tensions. It was a stressful time. But now, with good leadership, the TEC has carved out its niche and is achieving good results and adding real value.

As for the Accord proposal …

The Accord report is simply floating the idea of a tertiary education commission. They are not necessarily committed to recommending one. Yet.

They conceive of the commission as a body operating alongside government, but also with independence, to “promote long-term strategic thinking across the … sector”. The commission is also seen as having a research and analysis role, making it a source of expert advice and decision-making to the sector, providing oversight and coordination. And it is seen as providing policy and funding advice to government. In that role, it is expected to be the “pricing authority”.

Alongside those strategic roles, the commission is seen as being responsible for one key operational/administrative role – negotiating “mission-based compacts” with institutions, in effect, allocating the funding between institutions.

Well ….

  • I can understand how a commission might be a source of advice and expertise to institutions.  But decision-making? Coordination? It would be useful to know just which decisions the Accord group sees as being made by the commission, as opposed to by institutions.
  • As for policy and funding. Think of the trade-off described above …. If the suggestion of independence from government is adopted, then how seriously would government take the commission’s policy and funding advice? What is meant by a “pricing authority”?  That reads like a rate-setting body …. Would the government be prepared to countenance a statutory body offering official advice – transparently – on funding that it would likely reject?

Yes, these are questions that a foreigner can’t really assess.  But I note[4] that, in the mid-1980s, the CTEC identified a need for a funding rise of 16%, which it then scaled that down to a request for 7%. And the government paid less than 3%. Enough said.

There is quite a lot of shaping of the notion of the commission needed before one could reasonably call it a “proposal”.    

As for my advice to the Accord group as they think about the commission idea ….

Look at the experiences of those of us the eastern edge of the Tasman ….

First make sure your whole group reads Jonathan Boston’s paper on the TEAC reforms. TEAC’s review of the NZ tertiary sector parallels the Accord; its recommendations bear a striking resemblance to the Accord interim report. Take a look at how a government might, could, use, modify the suggestions.

Secondlook at how “negotiating mission-based compacts” with institutions actually evolved in practice in NZ – from the original expectation of a directive, high-compliance model, similar to that sketched in the interim report, into a simpler, less intrusive, less directive two-way exchange of information that doesn’t compromise institutional autonomy, but that still allows discussion of government priorities (equity priorities, learner success programmes, disability action plans).

Thirdlook at how the agency arrangements played out in NZ – between the TEC, the Ministry of Education, the regulators; learn about how agency role ambiguity can lead to unproductive and corrosive inter-agency rivalry, but that, with role clarity, comes productive relationships.

FourthDon’t extend the scope of the commission beyond the HE sector unless and until you have thoroughly road-tested and refined the commission model – the increase in scale and complexity that comes from bringing in the VET sector and other parts of the post-secondary landscape could overwhelm the commission’s processes.  Barriers between the different sectors of post-secondary education are questions that need resolution.  They need government policy action and institutional commitment; they don’t vanish simply because there is a common oversight commission.

You could do a lot worse than invite Jonathan, plus Tim Fowler – now chief executive of NZ’s TEC – plus one or two tertiary education bureaucrats to share their experiences and their battle scars with your panel.


Boston, J. (2002) Evaluating the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission: an insider’s perspective NZ Annual Review of Education, 11, 59-84

Hudson H (1985) Review of the structure of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, Australian Government Publishing Service

Norton A (2023) For universities the Accord interim report proposes a more extreme version of Job-Ready Graduates Higher Education Commentary from Carlton

Smyth R (2012) 20 years in the life of a small tertiary education system

TEC (2022) Plan guidance for TEOs submitting plans for funding from 1 January 2023 Tertiary Education Commission

Plus ….

A new deal for HE – the road ahead by Merlin Crossley, Future Campus 26 7 23

A tertiary education commission: NZ has one that worksby Roger Smyth, Campus Morning Mail, 18 5 23

Australian accord’s challenge: boost enrolments in sceptical era by John RossTimes Higher Education 24 7 23

Unifying tertiary education: NZ demonstrates it takes time by Roger Smyth, Campus Morning Mail, 23 5 23

[1] Refer to Boston J (2002) Evaluating the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission: an insider’s perspective  NZ Annual Review of Education, 11, 59-84

[2] Hudson H (1985) Review of the structure of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, Australian Government Publishing Service.  Refer to the comments on page 1 about the relationship between the CTEC advice in the context of the independence of the organisation.

[3]  Refer also to the Crown Entities Act 2004

[4] From Hudson (1985) op cit, page 2

Roger Smyth is HE consultant and former head of New Zealand Government’s Tertiary Education Group



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