One commission to rule them all

In Accord submissions, lobbies pushed for a central agency to oversight universities. They got what they wished, with Mary O’Kane and colleagues proposing an immensely powerful tertiary education regulator.

Why a commission: Glyn Davis, former VC of Uni Melbourne and now head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, long advocated for a policy agency, to provide “long term plans and stewardship,” with members drawn from industry and the HE expertorate (Campus Morning Mail, February 1 2016).

A recent idea is for a commission as cordon sanitaire to stand between universities and ministers who do not know their place – which is to hand over the money and otherwise butt out.  During the coalition government’s free speech on campus campaign then Monash U VC Margaret Gardner made the case for a “buffer body that would stop a lot of this tetchy debate,” ( Campus Morning Mail October 13 2021).

We have been here before: Australian universities were subject to rule by expert agency, in one form or another for 35 years, until John Dawkins abolished the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission in 1987. It had developed a policy-making life of its own, including on connecting VET and HE and appeared less overseer and more ally of universities.

But there were people in the party who never lost faith in the idea. Then shadow HE minister Kim Carr set out the substance of a higher education productivity and performance commission in 2016, stating it was necessary to provide a second source of official advice and that “university leaders have put to me for some time the need.”  Senator Carr said the commission would oversee funding agreements and promote innovation. The then Office of Learning and Teaching would be part of the commission and the Australian Research Council would continue independent but within the new agency. The Department of Education would focus on “back office functions,” (Campus Morning Mail September 24 2015).

The O’Kane Accord wants to go further: For a start they propose a “tertiary education commission” to be “single system steward.”  Less steward than suzerain, wielding immense authority over funding in HE and encroaching as far into training as its VET counterpart, Jobs and Skills Australia would allow.

TEC’s “initial remit” would be: “policy development for higher education and research,  future planning, making mission-based compacts, pricing, funding allocation, accountability, data collection and transparency, quality and performance.”

The ARC and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency would be independent statutory bodies “within” the commission.

Note “initial” because the Accord authors have more expansive ambitions for the commission, including;

  • leadership: “The tertiary education system is too important to Australia’s social, economic and environmental wellbeing to leave its future to the uncoordinated action of individual institutions”
  • oversight: work with professional accreditation bodies to develop codes of conduct. Negotiate the mix of full-fee and CSP PG coursework places as part of individual university agreements
  • engagement: with providers on what they offer international students
  • planning: “address the appropriate diversity of tertiary education providers of varying size, shape, purpose and location to meet national and place-based needs.”  Not just universities, all tertiary providers – and that means TAFEs.

Plan and manage a new funding model: for each publicly funded university. In detail, quite some detail. For example with regard to students from equity groups, “the commission would be best placed to assess the cost of meeting the needs of each cohort and determine appropriate loading amounts and distribution at the point of delivery.”

Expand, sooner not later: “expand the Australian Tertiary Education Commission’s role to focus on the whole tertiary education system, with governance arrangements reflecting the ongoing role of all jurisdictions in its future, and with expansion to take effect in the context of the next National Skills Agreement.” Maybe also include the Australian Skills Quality Authority, “in order to reduce regulatory duplication”

And create cadres: “to build the evidence and expertise base necessary to support the Australian Tertiary Education Commission’s core functions, the Australian Government establish a centre of excellence in higher education and research.”

There is more of the same but overall the proposed TEC suits the post-Covid political times, with the national government taking a Chifley-esque attitude to the role of the state in regulating the economy.  The Accord commission proposes a review of the commission every five years. If it is created and makes it through the first one it will be around for a generation, too powerful for any HE lobby to take on and too much trouble for any conservative minister to fight. 



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