In a radical policy change, Australia's Tertiary Education Minister, Craig Emerson, is this week releasing a new approach to quality control that meets university demands for a lighter regulatory burden and could gut Labor's own creation, the Tertiary Education Quality Assurance Agency.
While Emerson is announcing only a regulatory review, measures included in the announcement make it clear he has heard and understood the concerns of Universities Australia and the Group of Eight, and accepts that an estimated $280 million in annual compliance costs for universities to report to government is unacceptable. "The review will ensure more of the government's record investment is directed at student tuition than administration," he planned to say.
In immediate measures Emerson will announce rationalizations of reports required by his department and says the departmental secretary, Don Russell, will write to the chief commissioner of the quality assurance agency, Carol Nicoll, to "seek advice about any immediate actions that can be taken to ameliorate concerns in the sector about red tape."
Nicoll will also be asked "to assist" the principals conducting the review, Professors Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite.
"As we continue to bed down our regulatory reforms we must be vigilant about monitoring the impact and proactively refining requirements in response to robust evidence of a need for change," Emerson's announcement says.
The report specifically addresses evidence in a August 2012 external review of reporting requirements and endorses UA's call for balance between accountability for public funds and redundant regulation.
"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," the report stated.
But in a potentially far-reaching request, Lee Dow and Braithwaite are asked to consider a two-tier higher education system based on "a model of 'earned autonomy' " where "providers with histories of excellence and track records of achievement would be largely exempt from heavy-handed reporting requirements."
"The standards themselves would not be relaxed -- the proof necessary for the regulator to conclude that the provider continues to comply would be less than for other providers."
Their brief also includes "the circumstances of dual-sector institutions and the increasing convergence of vocational and higher education."
The announcement was welcomed by UA chief Belinda Robinson. "We are very pleased that government has listened to us," she said.
She added that it was particularly significant after Emerson's efficiency dividend cut university funding. "Efficiency goes both ways; universities can make efficiency gains but it does not help when they are burdened with $280 million in compliance costs," she said.
Professor Lee Dow acknowledged the size of the task but said he did not expect a large team to complete the project. "We can't have a huge bureaucracy to run an exercise on reducing red tape."
A bipartisan veteran of many higher education reviews, including the Howard government's West Report, which recommended a student voucher system, Professor Lee Dow said he expected to have a report ready before the government went into caretaker mode.
Also last night, TEQSA issued a statement welcoming the review "and the opportunity to contribute to an examination of the balance between necessary regulatory oversight and regulatory burden on the sector."
"TEQSA has 18 months' experience working with the sector in line with our regulatory principles and approach, and we are keen to discuss the lessons we have learned with the reviewers."
With the opposition refusing to refund Labor's cuts, Dr. Emerson's plan neutralizes the Coalition's higher education advantage as the election approaches.