The 'Dead Weight' of Red Tape

Australian university officials complain that they groan under the regulatory burden imposed by government regulators and agencies.

April 10, 2013

One day after a report criticized the heavy burden that government regulation puts on Australia's universities, the federal regulatory agency gave higher education leaders prime evidence of the "dead weight of regulation" crushing the sector.

The Group of Eight universities said that completing the Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency's "Quality assessment on third-party arrangements" would require at least a month of a senior executive's time at each university.

Among the 136 questions are whether universities use a standard template for legal agreements or MOUs, and how many overseas professional associations provide IT, library and "student welfare and well-being" services for their students.

The chair of the Group of Eight, Fred Hilmer, questioned the need for the survey: "It would appear to be inconsistent with the three basic principles of the TEQSA Act: regulatory necessity, reflecting risk and proportionate regulation."

In a statement, TEQSA said third-party arrangements were an acknowledged risk factor and quality assessments were part of its mandate. "TEQSA would not be meeting its legislated obligations if it did not conduct QAs," a spokesman said.

Hilmer said he was surprised that the survey had emerged at a time of "increasing concern about red tape as a barrier to productivity".

The spotlight on red tape was sparked by an analysis from education consultant PhillipsKPA, partly at the behest of the Tertiary Education Department, which found universities expended $26 million and 66,000 staff days a year meeting just some of the department's reporting demands.

The department said it would work with Universities Australia to address PhillipsKPA's 45 recommendations. A spokesman indicated the department had already accepted three recommendations to remove overlapping equity reporting requirements.

The RMIT University policy adviser Gavin Moodie said the recommendations were ambitious. "Even getting the government's agreement in principle would not be straightforward, involving several departments and ministers."

On Monday, in a submission to the governing coalition's red tape reduction task force, Universities Australia estimated that regulatory compliance and reporting cost universities $280 million a year. The submission said data collections should be administered by a single government agency that would "simplify ad hoc reporting requirements," eliminating duplicated obligations and different reporting templates.

"The dead weight of unnecessary, redundant and duplicative, regulation and reporting not only leads to waste in the allocation of university and government resources, it also diverts substantial funds away from the core business of universities -- teaching, scholarship and research," said Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia.

UA wants a Productivity Commission review of universities' regulatory burden. Citing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's pledge to be "more a respectful listener than a hands-on manager," the UA submission called for "a new relationship with universities."

"A Productivity Commission review of university regulation would be a good initiative to start this new relationship," UA said.

But Hilmer said the Productivity Commission was not the appropriate body. "I don't believe this is a matter for economists," he said. "The real cost of excessive and unnecessary red tape is not the top line financial cost, but the cost in terms of time, inefficiencies and the inhibiting effect on innovation."

He said "a body with expertise in process mapping" should review "the whole regulatory regime and what it is supposed to be achieving."

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