This minister isn’t a threat to academic freedom. But what about the next one?

In Senate estimates hearings last week (they only put the transcript up today, large pdf):

Senator MASON [shadow minister for universities] —Andrew Norton wrote an interesting article the other day opposing the establishment of a national regulator. I often agree with Andrew, but can I—
Senator Chris Evans [minister for tertiary education] —I am writing a response so I will send it to you.
Senator MASON—Very good, Minister.

My original article is here, the minister’s response is here.

Evans’ key response to my article is this passage: Continue reading “This minister isn’t a threat to academic freedom. But what about the next one?”

The coming end of academic autonomy

On Friday the government released draft legislation for the biggest change to higher education organisation since the forced mergers of the Dawkins years: a new, national higher education quality regulator, to be known as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

TEQSA is a child of the WorkChoices High Court case, the Commonwealth using the corporations power to grab control of higher education accreditation from the states (though the draft does require state ministers to be consulted in some circumstances). All higher education providers will have to meet basic registration standards (called provider standards in the legislation), teaching and learning standards, qualification standards, information standards, and for universities research standards as well.

The standards will all be in delegated legislation, made by the minister on the advice of a Higher Education Standards Panel appointed by the minister, with regard to advice from TEQSA and state ministers. Though there are checks on the minister, overall this will concentrate a very large amount of power over Australian higher education in the federal government. The standards will be disallowable by either house of parliament, but cannot be amended by the parliament.

By contrast, the current system is highly decentralised. Continue reading “The coming end of academic autonomy”

Banning degrees

In recent years ‘Juris Doctor’ (JD) programs have proliferated around the country (eg U of M, UNSW, Monash, Sydney). JDs are initial professional entry qualifications for legal practice, but in theory at least taught at Masters level.

But now a team from the Australian Qualifications Framework Council – led by the great crusher of educational diversity, John Dawkins – has effectively recommended prohibiting the JD terminology. A report to education ministers issued late last week recommends that all qualifications taught at the various levels set out in the report be exclusively known by the names provided in the AQF. So all JDs would have to be renamed ‘Master of [Legal Something]’.

To date, degree titles have been a matter of self-regulation for universities. The current qualifications framework describes higher education qualifications, but does not prescribe them for self-accrediting institutions.

This system of self-regulation seems to have worked pretty well. The main criticism has been that some masters degrees are too light – really just undergraduate subjects, or too short, or both. Intellectually, some honours bachelor degrees are superior to some masters degrees. But there is little evidence that this has caused significant ‘real world’ problems. Employers know what is what. Continue reading “Banning degrees”

A hopelessly flawed university ‘equity’ policy

Alas, the government’s equity funding policy announced today is no better than the draft version released late last year. Here’s a quick summary of what’s wrong with it:

1) It is based on an arbitrary definition of low SES – people living in the lowest 25% of postcodes – slightly alleviated by a formula that includes means-tested student payments. It’s arbitrary because people outside the definition are for all practical purposes no different from people inside the definition. The definition may change in future, but we are off to a bad start.

2) An arbitrary definition would not necessarily matter much if it was merely a driver of funding to universities. But the money is supposed to be targeted on official low SES students, and so unjustly discriminates against people outside the definition.

3) As we have been reminded this week, the core assumption of the policy, that low SES students are particularly in need of additional help, is weak at best. Even if future low SES students are less capable than the low SES students of today and the recent past, it’s not clear why the money should not be spent on general support services available to all students who need it, regardless of where they live or their Centrelink status. Continue reading “A hopelessly flawed university ‘equity’ policy”

ATO unable to HELP

I’ve spent part of my long-service leave doing a subject through Open Universities Australia. But as well as learning more about statistics, I thought I could use my enrolment to make a point.

Though lending students money for their fees on an income-contingent basis is a good idea, as I have complained before the HELP scheme is now too complex, anomaly-ridden, and expensive for taxpayers.

The particular absurdity I wanted to highlight was that if you do a subject through Open Universities Australia, there is no charge to borrow money under FEE-HELP (students at private providers and TAFEs pay a 20% surcharge). But OUA students still get a 10% bonus on any repayments they make.

I thought I would be able to would be able to take out the FEE-HELP loan, and using the bonus clear my approximately $900 in debt for about $820. I’d then write a newspaper article criticising this free money scheme and call for it to be fixed.

As it turns out, I haven’t been able to do this. Continue reading “ATO unable to HELP”

The myth of Commonwealth competence

During the week, as Pollytics blog reported, Essential Research found strong support for a Commonwealth takeover of hospitals.

But as The Weekend Australian‘s editorial argued, the lesson from the insulation fiasco is that it is time to think again about what it called ‘Big Canberra’ – the belief among senior politicians of both parties, often supported by a frustrated public, that the Commonwealth bureaucracy can succeed where state bureaucracies have failed. Continue reading “The myth of Commonwealth competence”

The realities of government

The Rudd government is considering placing tougher requirements on businesses to disclose the number of women they employ and blocking firms from industry assistance or bidding for goverment contracts if they fail to meet family friendly workplace standards.

– ‘Family friendly rules for business’, page 1, AFR, 15 February 2010.

“It is critical that there are mechanisms within government to push back against relentless pressures for increased regulatory burdens on business,” Mr Tanner told The Australian Financial Review.

‘Tanner vows new assault on red tape’, page 1, AFR, 15 February 2010.

Lindsay Tanner is a good guy, as Labor ministers go. But the sad reality is that given the government he is part of, and the timing of its coming to power, he as Minister for Finance and Deregulation will leave office with government finances in much worse shape than he found them, and with the regulatory burden increased rather than diminished.

A Christmas gift of less regulation

The most comically titled minister in the Rudd government is my local member, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. Every government comes to office promising to reduce onerous regulations; every government leaves office having increased them.

But in a Christmas gesture, regulation is actually being reduced. From today grannies can take their knitting needles on flights, and nail files and metal cutlery are also back. Now if only they could get rid of those ridiculous explosive residue tests as well…

Merry Christmas.

Should unis ignore the government’s peformance funding?

Though the federal government plans to stop telling universities how many students to enrol in which disciplines, its plans for university ‘performance funding’, detailed today, show that the urge to micromanage doesn’t go away, it just shifts to different areas.

There will be new targets for enrolment of low SES students, retention rates, pass rates, overall and teaching satisfaction, students’ self-assessed generic skills, employment and further study outcomes, with warnings of other possible future indicators to replace the more manifestly inadequate on this list. Two of these – a new ‘University Experience Survey’ for first years and wider use of the Graduate Skills Assessment test – would involve additional form filling-in and testing for students.

The targets will be adjusted to the circumstances of each institution, so ‘success’ against the targets is likely to depend as much on the skill of the university negotiators in getting easy targets as anything subsequently done to achieve them.

Though the goals may sound good, this is not necessarily the case. Continue reading “Should unis ignore the government’s peformance funding?”

How many pages does a Christmas card have?

According to a recent Senate estimates hearing, the government is seeking legal advice on how many pages a Christmas card has. The trigger for this seemingly absurd inquiry comes from the government’s new rules on how MPs can spend their printing and communication entitlements. Every page of material MPs distribute has to have on it:

This material has been produced at Australian Government expense by [insert name of member].

But the Department doesn’t know how to interpret the every page requirement for communications that are folded paper or card. Does folding turn one page into two? Wouldn’t stating the funding source once for each document be (more than) enough?

Other aspects of this regulation turn it from being merely ridiculous into something more sinister. MPs aren’t allowed to use their allowance at all for ‘electioneering’: Continue reading “How many pages does a Christmas card have?”