The Australian | 21 November 2012
A proposal to create a body something like an Australian Universities Commission* as a “buffer” between the Commonwealth government and the university has received a cool reception at a “plenary session” of Universities Australia (UA).
Championed by Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven and Glyn Davis, UA chairman and Melbourne vice-chancellor, the proposal is likely to be dumped or highly diluted.
Craven argues that a universities commission could redress problems in universities’ “mega-governance”. He says the overarching governance of the sector has evolved in a largely random way, with “natural regulation creep” as universities increased their reliance on Commonwealth federal funding.
A universities commission-style body would encourage heterogeneity and also bring disparate areas such as TEQSA, the Australian Qualifications Framework, Australian Research Council and parts of the Tertiary Education Department into “the dreaded one-stop shop”, so that “instead of people semaphoring each other from different hills in Canberra they’re actually working together”.
However, the sector’s concerns about such a body ranged from general uncertainty over the role of such a commission to fears it would only increase red tape and confusion. There is also a belief in the sector that it is unrealistic to expect any contemporary government to accept such a check on its control over the sector.
UA is in the process of formulating an “overarching policy statement” for the sector. According to Davis, the process has given rise to many interesting ideas:
Some have been adopted, others modified and some dropped. The final outcomes of this extended iterative process will be clear when the paper is published.
On matters of sector governance, Davis says vice-chancellors recognise the risk of policy incoherence with key decision-making responsibility divided between commonwealth, state and territory ministers, government departments and regulatory bodies.
There is a strong interest in encouraging a more integrated policy framework for higher education in Australia, and a lively discussion about how best this could be achieved.
* A universities commission was first established in 1942. The Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, created by the Whitlam Government in 1974, was abolished in 198, with then Commonweralth minister John Dawkins saying it had too much power and had been a barrier to change.