A tertiary education commission with teeth

Responses to the Interim Accord Report look like focusing on the lines interest groups established in submissions to its discussion paper.

Not health economist Stephen Duckett though – he has ideas on how the big operational change in an adopted Accord could work.

And that is the proposed tertiary education commission, “a new system of national governance”, which would regulate universities for teaching and related and over-time cover all tertiary education.

In particular, it would “function as a pricing authority for Commonwealth higher education funding for the purposes of a potential student-centred, needs-based funding model.”

A body that sits between government and universities has been on the agenda for years. In 2016, then Uni Melbourne VC Glyn Davis proposed HE experts could provide “long term planning and stewardship.” He suggested the Hong Kong University Grants Committee as a model (Campus Morning Mail February 1 2016). And recently former Monash U VC Margaret Gardner called for a “buffer body” between government and universities, to be the place for funding and policy discussions, “in ways that are considered and are not driven by populist politics,” (CMM October 13 2021).  

An independent authority also featured in major lobby Accord submissions (although Universities Australia referred to a “mechanism”).

And the Chancellors’ Council backs a TEC, because reforms proposed by the Accord require a national approach.

Professor Duckett has ideas on how such could work, based in large part on his long experience with state-Commonwealth hospital pricing, with carrots and sticks applying to government objectives, notably student equity targets.

“A system of price incentives could be incorporated into a new funding model – principally applying on providers rather than consumers – and in this way the commission – university relationship would become more market – like rather than hierarchy,” he suggests.

Which would be good, “hierarchical relationships are characterised by directions and a myriad of input-oriented programmes … These programmes are designed to achieve tightly defined objectives through relatively small grants, with each grant having its own reporting arrangements. This reporting burden is cumulative and significant, leading to inefficiency in university administration.”

Good-o, but this would not necessarily work out for university groups who want an independent agency to be a powerful policy friend, protecting them from unsympathetic ministers.

Which may be why the Group of Eight is adamant in its response to the Accord Interim Report that a TEC should exist to advise government, but “have no role in operational matters such as funding allocations or negotiation of institutional compacts with government.”

As Roger Smyth argues, the New Zealand experience shows such an agency can either administer policy or make it (Future Campus, August 2).

And, as NZ demonstrates, a TE will not necessarily be a friendly buffer for universities against an unsympathetic executive.

There is outrage across the ditch in universities which have not enrolled as many students as the Tertiary Education Commission funded them for. Broadcaster RNZ reports those that are doing it tough want to pay the money back next year, but the Commission wants it now and apparently is not swayed by warnings of job losses.

Perhaps anticipating an unhelpful commission, the Group of Eight also argues for a national agency or alliance to utilise data so providers know “ how they can have the most impact” and create “mission – relevant targets.”

Plus it could provide “independent and long-term strategic advice” to a TEC.



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