No friends in high places

There will be plenty of support for a tertiary education commission, if announced in the Accord, based on assumptions that it would variously protect universities from meddling ministers and be their voice in government.

Maybe that will be the case, but more likely, maybe not.

In 2021, then Monash U VC Margaret Gardner suggested, “a buffer body would stop a lot of tetchy debate” between universities and government. Former VC of Uni Melbourne and now secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet Glyn Davis had previously expressed the same sort of hope, proposing a policy agency, staffed by experts from industry and HE, like the Hong Kong University Grants Committee, (CMM February 1 2016).

There is Buckleys chance of the powerful friend with the purse model, as the New Zealand experience indicates. Undergraduate enrolments are not as good as university managements across the ditch anticipated. So in September the Tertiary Education Commission asked for the money it provided for non-existent students to be repaid without delay, despite universities warnings about job losses. 

And now the Commission’s frank advice to the new coalition government is released, including universities making losses this year. Certainly TEAC includes a reference to below inflation funding by governments but it also points out, “many institutions have also been slow to adjust to declining domestic learner numbers and shifting patterns of enrolment.” Guess which bit tertiary education and skills minister Penny Simmonds will quote.

A Minister that wants to stay one is not going to allow an agency the independence to get the credit for allocating resources while they take the flack for unpopular decisions.  As NZ education policy commentator Roger Smyth puts it, “no government will delegate policy-making rights in a critical and potentially contentious area (such as education and skills) to an autonomous body.”

Which rather makes the case against an independent funding agency doing anything other than sending the cheques and checking they are spent properly emerging from the Accord. As for an expert policy body,  if one gets up, it will not necessarily be a special friend to universities.

One of the big, albeit not widely noticed themes of the Accord so far, is a “joined up” post school system. Planning for such would have to involve Jobs and Skills Australia and you can bet it would argue for its clients rather than defer to universities.  Plus, it would have more powerful friends than HE does – the premiers who run TAFE and would want to know what was in the policy change for them.

Which would rather make for multiple Ministers sticking their bibs into businesses which universities want to keep minding for themselves.



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