The ATEC time-machine: re-regulating universities takes us back to the ‘90s

The Australian Government consultation paper regarding the establishment of the Australian Tertiary Education Commission proposes a body that “will bring direction, cohesion and stability to policy making and it will have the capacity to drive reforms over the long term.

There will be four Commissioners, including one First Nations Commissioner, and a Chief Executive Officer. They will have powers to consult widely and be at arms-length from the higher education sector. While strong and independent leadership is proposed, the Commission will be housed in the Department of Education and leverage department resources to minimise establishment and operational costs. Reporting to Parliament will be through the Secretary of the Department as the accountability authority. The Minister of Education is expected to have statutory powers to direct the ATEC.

These operational arrangements raise the important question as to how independent the ATEC decision-making will be from the daily operations of the Department and what will be the respective roles of each body.

ATEC has a far-reaching reform agenda:

  • implementing managed growth funding for universities
  • implementing needs-based funding for underrepresented cohorts, and
  • preparing the HE sector for improved harmonisation, including involvement with the Vocational Education and Training sector.

The consultation paper introduces new terminology that potentially raises warning flags for Australia’s universities. “Stewardship”, “tertiary harmonisation” and higher education “system improvements” are all loaded terms, the beauty and scope of which will be in the hands of the Commissioners. The early years of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which over-reached its brief, is a case in point.

The paper lists at length the Commission’s various functions. These range from administering funding for higher education teaching and research programs, through to delivering new higher education quality metrics and data functionality.

One is left to ponder whether, in pursuing the goal of achieving stronger governance, rigour and oversight of public funding in higher education, any consideration has been given to the current standing of Australian universities, the impact on the autonomy of university decision-making and the risk of burdening universities with excessive reporting and process compliance. Viewed globally, Australian universities punch significantly above their weight, both individually and as a sector. There is no mention in the consultation paper about the need to respect established university decision-making processes or for a genuinely needs-based and proportionate approach to reporting and stewardship of the sector.

What is proposed comes at a time when world-wide rankings of Australian universities have never been higher and when less than 50 percent of the annual income of most universities comes from government.

It is planned for ATEC to influence and inform a wide range of activities pertaining to the governance and management of universities. These include their performance and quality, managing international student profiles, advising on and monitoring tertiary educational targets.

Crucially, ATEC will implement enforceable mission-based compacts with HE providers by administering government funding for higher education teaching and research programmes to manage growth and needs-based funding. The document refers to managing educational and research programs and for ATEC to provide advice to government on HE pricing. It will review universities’ strategic goals and missions, including inter alia estimates of student load across both domestic and international funding clusters. The increased workload and compliance costs to universities will be significant.

On the systems improvement front, ATEC’s role in part is to: foster greater tertiary alignment between higher education and VET sectors; establish a pricing framework for estimating the cost of higher education; steward the sector through future disruptions and crises such as COVID and the emergence of AI; and improve the quality and reputation of Australian higher education.

Each of these is a lofty and immensely challenging aspiration. Some are legacy projects repeatedly attempted but never really delivered. Others assume that a small national entity will have superior understanding as to how to chart unknown or inhospitable waters.

In reading the consultation paper it is hard for retired senior executives such as ourselves not to see themes reminiscent of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission 1977-88 and its successor, the National Board of Employment, Education and Training and its Higher Education Council. The 1990’s was the era of detailed education profiles, often involving extended contests over a small number of funded places and extensive reporting measured at that time in metres rather than megabits. It was also a period when Education Department executives, buoyed by the presence of HEC business representatives, referenced their roles as oversight of  the ‘University of Australia’.

It is instructive to recall that it was only after the collapse of that era of “stewardship” and increasing levels of deregulation were condoned that Australian universities were able to frame their expectations against genuinely international benchmarks and deliver the outstanding global rankings they presently enjoy. They have experienced two decades of exceptional overseas student growth, attracted outstanding world-class staff and conducted highly successful fundraising campaigns among other initiatives.

In responding to the consultation paper and the expectations prescribed for ATEC, Australian universities might be encouraged to contrast the costs and benefits of previous whole-of-system frameworks with the outcomes that high levels of institutional autonomy continue to deliver.

Those ultimately accountable for designing the ATEC legislation might also be encouraged to set achievable expectations, reflect on why earlier models proved ultimately unviable and be mindful of how much central ‘stewardship’ has contributed to today’s truly world-class Australian university sector. 

Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman are Honorary Fellows at the University of Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Frank Larkins was Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Melbourne from 1991 to 2008. Ian Marshman was Academic Registrar and Senior Vice Principal at the University of Melbourne from 1990 to 2015.



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