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Where next for regulation of Australian universities?

By Glyn Davis - posted Monday, 1 November 2004

A policy framework is like a scientific paradigm - an explanation and set of normative practices rolled into a way of seeing the world. From within the paradigm, everything seems logical, connected, obvious. Indeed we can barely imagine an alternative. As Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), scientific paradigms survive despite mounting internal contradictions, until a superior replacement is available. Then the new paradigm sweeps aside the old. 

In 1988 Federal Education Minister John Dawkins overturned one policy framework and substituted another. The divide between research universities, institutes of technology and teaching colleges disappeared. There would be only one type of tertiary institution in Australia - sizeable universities, comprehensive, research-focused and funded at a similar rate. A long chain of amalgamations followed, producing the standard Australian university of 2004 - large, multi-campus, offering a mix of undergraduate degrees and professional qualifications, aspiring to research greatness.

The Dawkins revolution achieved several goals. It expanded the number of university places available to students and gave universities economies of scale - essential, given the falling government subsidy per student from 1983. The unified national system allowed a degree of central planning within the system and standardised those degree programmes that government would support. It secured better access to university places and research facilities for regional communities.


This paradigm persists. It was entrenched in a 2000 agreement between the Commonwealth, State and Territory education ministers (meeting as MCEETYA) that established a uniform accreditation process for establishing universities. This protocol accepts the Dawkins approach of a single model for Australian tertiary education. By requiring a “sustained culture of scholarship”, including the “creation of new knowledge through research” the protocols rule out the kind of teaching-only universities that are common in America, where half of all bachelor students enrol in institutions that do not award doctoral degrees. 

In 2002 new education minister Brendan Nelson announced a policy review but committed to the existing Dawkins framework. The resulting legislation loosened funding arrangements but tightened regulation. The large, comprehensive, research-focused university is still the only approved form for an Australian university and funding rates for teaching remain uniform.

Kuhn argued that within close-knit scientific communities, paradigms come under pressure when discovery throws up anomalies. In effect the paradigm is undermined from within. The daily work of scientists produces novel facts that do not fit the expected pattern. As these mount, some seek new explanations. But since paradigms provide structure and certainty, they are not easily overturned. A paradigm will persist until a viable alternative is available to take its place.

The prevailing paradigm in Australian higher education regulation, the Dawkins policy framework, now shapes thinking in the bureaucracy and universities alike. The operating principles of the Dawkins model seem self-evident, its aims thoroughly reasonable. Yet government decisions over several administrations slowly undermine the Dawkins framework from within. Almost all revolve around money.

The central dilemma has been cost: improving school retention rates and so growing demand for university places has increased the fiscal burden of tertiary education on the public purse. Successive cabinets found ways to shift costs from Treasury to individual students. In 1986 the Hawke government opened the higher education system to full fee paying international students. The result was spectacular - a huge export industry created in less than 20 years, attracting more than 210,000 international students in 2003 and earning $5.030 billion. Later domestic students began paying too, first through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), later through fees for postgraduate qualifications, loan schemes, increases in HECS charges and, most recently, through allowing fee-paying domestic students.

These trends produce unexpected tensions within the policy framework. They break down the notion of tertiary education as a public enterprise. The Commonwealth now provides on average only 40 per cent of universities’ total income .


More importantly, the establishment of a large and successful tertiary market within Australia has drawn private players keen to participate. Some have entered the industry through service contracts with existing public universities, but others find themselves locked out by the MCEETYA protocols. By requiring a research culture and facilities, these protocols prevent teaching-only universities, as at least two failed attempts to start private institutions have demonstrated.

The Commonwealth is a signatory to rules that allow only one model of university in Australia, that of comprehensive institutions with a research mission. Yet recent Commonwealth decisions challenge this approach by extending university loan schemes and, in the 2004 budget, allocating university places to private providers that do not meet the MCEETYA standards. The language of Commonwealth announcements has begun to sound like schools policy - a preference for private provision. Yet the extant policy framework for tertiary education reflects an earlier era in which only public universities operated and governments worried about equity of provision and comparability of standards.

The Dawkins model was invented for a world without the Internet, which allows international universities to operate within Australia without seeking local accreditation. The policy framework was developed before a vast global trade in students developed. It predates a new generation of American institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, which are unapologetically teaching-only, depending on communications technology and local non-academic staff to deliver programmes at modest cost to students. 

Eventually this framework will be challenged - by a local private provider wanting access to the same markets and government subsidies as public universities, an international player keen to move into Australia, a TAFE or private college eager to badge themselves a university. The potential player will talk loudly about investment being lost because of government shackles. They may seek redress under competition policy or international treaties. So on what basis will government make decisions about who can play?

The reappointed Brendan Nelson faces some interesting policy choices. Does the Minister seek to soften the MCEETYA protocols, so allowing new players? Does he pursue deregulation, allowing the market to organise the form and viability of individual institutions? Or does he seek a new regulatory framework, one flexible enough to accommodate public and private, large and specialised, research and teaching universities while maintaining international reputation through rigorous quality assurance?

The Dawkins framework survives because it has no obvious alternative. Governments stay within its constraints, no matter how incoherent the outcome. Public debate about universities rarely gets further than questions of fees or marking standards. Yet regulation matters, and deserves a serious policy debate. As Kuhn noted, the failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.

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Article edited by Nicholas Gruen.
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Though Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, Glyn Davis here expresses private views.

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About the Author

Professor Glyn Davis is Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University and Foundation Chair of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. Before taking up his present role, Professor Davis was Director-General of the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet.

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