Is higher education next?

The Prime Minister says that today’s High Court decision won’t be used as a “mandate to massively extend the powers of the Commonwealth”. But perhaps merely a “large” rather than a “massive” extension?

After all, Education Minister Julie Bishop has in recent months been showing some constitutional impatience. The main head of power in the Constitution the Commonwealth uses for universities is the “benefits to students” provision in section 51. This lets the Commonwealth provide conditional grants to universities, but doesn’t let them control universities’ governing legislation. This does not please Ms Bishop. In October she was complaining about various alleged deficiencies in university governance arrangements. University governance is a responsibility of the states. This displeasure seemed, however, to go beyond just governance. In another October speech she said:

Universities are creatures of our states, set up under state legislation, they are accredited, registered, audited, governed by the states. The states even nominate their representative for Councils and Senates. So where is their financial contribution? Just 2%? And that figure is debatable.

In a speech in early November at the Melbourne Institute conference, which doesn’t seem to be online, she went to so far as to say that the Whitlam government had made a mistake in 1973 in not getting a referral of powers from the states when the Commonwealth took over principal financial responsibility for higher education.
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