Archive for the 'Bureaucracy & red tape' Category

The TEQSA mistake

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency legislation passed through the Senate yesterday, and is expected to receive Coalition backing in the House of Representatives. As I seem to be the only person on the public record opposed to TEQSA, for later I-told-you-so purposes here’s a summary of my objections:

(1) It takes higher education standards into the realm of partisan politics. ‘Standards’ on getting a licence to operate as a higher education provider, course accreditation, and general ‘teaching and learning’ will all now be set by one individual, the federal minister. There are processes to ensure the minister largely acts on expert advice, but he/she will appoint the experts, and ultimately I don’t think he/she has to follow the advice.

The current minister insists that he will respect academic freedom, and I don’t disbelieve him. But it is a bit like the Liberals backing the idea of a national curriculum when in government, and then professing to be appalled when Labor later appoints its mates to write it. The problem is creating such a power in the first place. I set out a couple of the scenarios in this Age article.

(2) There is too much centralisation. Even if the experts could set their standards without the minister’s approval, this would still be a problem. Standards are contestable – I wrote another Age article pointing out that draft standards released to date contain some dubious requirements. Read the rest of this entry »

Bureaucratic overkill on campaign finance law

NSW and Queensland have extremely complex campaign finance laws. I think the underlying assumptions – that we need regulation to limit ‘undue influence’ and to ensure the voices of the rich don’t drown out the voices of others – are dubious (explained in detail in my campaign finance paper, finally out today). But let’s grant them for the sake of argument. Is it necessary to have anything like the current campaign finance regimes to move towards these goals?

In NSW, three types of restrictions are imposed: bans on some donors, caps on all donors, and disclosure of all donors over $1,000. Queensland has capping and disclosure. All have their defects (see my paper). But many of them could be avoided if the regime was restricted to capping alone.

For example, even if there was a case for believing that some donors were intrinsically worse than others, if donations are capped at low levels – as they are, $5,000 to political parties, $2,000 to candidates and third parties – they can’t have much influence anyway. Bans are overkill, since the caps alone achieve almost all the original objective of diminishing the influence of groups deemed undesirable. And lifting the bans would save political parties and third parties from the time-consuming task of checking whether donors are legal or not. Read the rest of this entry »

Strangling political activity with red tape

Just before I was about to finally get my campaign finance paper released, the Queensland ALP rammed through its campaign finance amendments to their electoral act – forcing many revisions. (The Parliamentary Library’s summary is the easiest way in, if you want the detail.)

But far worse than my inconvenience, of course, is that after the changes in NSW this is the second successful assault on political freedom in the last 12 months. The Queensland and NSW laws are generally quite similar in capping expenditure and donations, but with two main exceptions.

The first is that Queensland has largely avoided the particularly appalling NSW complete bans on donors. There is no singling out of disfavoured industries for bans, and while foreign-sourced donations to political parties are banned (as they already were), they have not followed NSW’s lead in banning all non-citizens from donating.

However Queensland is worse than NSW in its regulation of third parties. This is because they have combined NSW-style caps on donors and spending with the federal regime of disclosure. The result is extraordinarily complex – even by the red tape standards of campaign finance law. Read the rest of this entry »

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: Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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.