Kate Ellis’s red tape machine

For some reason, Julia Gillard let junior minister Kate Ellis run with student amenities policy, cutting across Gillard’s own broader policy review under Denise Bradley.

Last week Ellis introduced complex legislation to regulate and finance student amenities, when for much of Australia prior to 2006 it had operated without any government regulation at all. Now she has released guidelines that provide more detail on how the legislation would operate.

Student unions are unhappy that the guidelines don’t force universities to give them money. But that they are not forced to do so is perhaps the only thing that can be said in favour of the guidelines.

The guidelines do require higher education institutions receiving tuition subsidies to provide democratic opportunities for students to participate in decision-making, and to provide ‘adequate and reasonable support resources and infrastructure’ for elected students to carry out their functions. They also require students to be given access to independent advocacy services for academic matters, for higher education providers to make available information on and access to health services, accommodation services, legal matters, and employment services.

Though the public universities will largely already be compliant with these regulations, they add another unfunded obligation to the Commonwealth tuition subsidy. So while this government endlessly complains of funding cuts under the previous government, the reality is that they have continued with the main cutting mechanism (below indexation grants) and added new unfunded costs, which the Coalition never did (they also imposed excessive regulation, but it was in exchange for a 7.5% increase in Commonwealth funding over 3 years). So on core funding, so far Labor’s record is worse than the Coalition’s.

This legislation and its guidelines also put another nail in the coffin of the Bradley committee’s plan to bring private providers into the system. As my CIS paper argued, few would have been attracted to the low rates per student on offer in any case. But adding extra costs and demanding a significant change in governance will lead them to sensibly tell the government to keep their money and their regulations.

The regulations also show that the one-size-fits-all public education mentality is still dominant in Canberra. All institutions must conform to the same higher education provider as community model. If higher education institutions are communities, democratic representation makes sense; if they are just educational service providers there is no need for them to have democratic institutions or to worry about student health, legal troubles etc etc. These services can be unbundled and become the responsibility of the student.

If the higher education system is to reach the enrolment targets set by Bradley, it seems crazy to entrench a high-cost model of education, in which other electoral and personal services are forcibly bundled in, and if an institution desires the title ‘university’ research costs are also incorporated. But as I have had to explain to incredulous listeners over the years as I have explained the higher education system, in this industry the fact that something is absurd has never been considered a valid objection to it.

12 thoughts on “Kate Ellis’s red tape machine

  1. “to entrench a high-cost model of education”
    The Australian system isn’t a high cost model — it’s generally a low/medium cost model — especially for things that require clinical placements or industry training. Try looking up the cost of things like optometry and compare the amount Aus universities get per student to the average charge in the US.


  2. I am curious, without student politics how is the political class of the future to cut their teeth. It would seem to me the failure of the young liberals on campus is now feeding into adult politics.

    Campus life should be and was about more than getting the piece of paper.


  3. I imagine it would be a worthwhile endeavor trying to work out how much cheaper various courses could really be run at teaching-only universities in Australia. If I compare the professional courses which are run where I work with some of the professional teaching only places in the US, then they are very comparable (indeed, toward the cheap end). No doubt it is hard to get staff that can teach these courses everywhere (especially since one must integrate with other organizations — would, for example, hospitals be willing to give free placements to for-profit teaching organizations or be willing to interact with staff that were not well qualified? I very much doubt it, which would add huge amounts to the costs of some degrees).
    In addition, even if I look at undergraduate teaching, it’s not clear to me how much could be saved in many areas given that teaching only roles would be very hard to get staff for (it’s already hard to get teaching/research staff in many areas — things like engineering would be in dire straights in Australia if not for places like Iran and China exporting smart people). Thus you would be forced to pay staff more than now, which you would then have to make up with greater teaching workloads. Even more problematic is that a lot of teaching now is done by sessionals, who are essentially treated as teaching-only staff for the work they do (and are hence relatively cheap). If you didn’t have any research going on, then you wouldn’t have good access to these guys.


  4. Conrad – There is already a hospital training system for for-profit students, with hospitals charging unis considerably more to take full-fee students. As private hospitals became teaching hospitals this issue should further diminish by lessening the need for rationing.

    You regularly claim that teaching-only institutions would be hard to staff, but I am sceptical of this, partly because so many existing academic staff are effectively teaching only, partly because by getting rid of the PhD requirement we could significantly enlarge the employment poll, partly because we have a large pool of professionals (ie women with kids) who do not want to work full-time, and teaching can be easily done on a part-time basis. The main reason so many sessionals are needed is that unis don’t want to employ full-time teaching staff when they have no need for them 6 months of the year, when clearly the economics of teaching only require teaching year round. And PhD students will still be looking for extra work, even if not on their own campus, for the casual work that is required.

    Salary costs will probably rise, as government policy has led to artificial under-investment in higher education. But I am pretty sure that there are considerable cost savings to be had in focusing on a core business, provided economies of scale can be generated (there have been a lot of mergers and takeovers in the private higher education sector, suggesting that they are trying to build these economies of scale).


  5. Charles – Under my scheme, some unis would offer the full campus experience, but they would not be required to do so.

    But as most current politicians were not active in student politics, it is hardly critical.


  6. Back when we officially had a two tier education system (i.e., pre-Dawkins) I believe that the cost of educating an undergraduate at a CAE was something like 75% of the cost for a similar undergraduate at a university.


  7. “They also require… higher education providers to make available information on and access to health services, accommodation services, legal matters, and employment services.”

    In re: “essential” health services, this sort of thing usually led, at Melbourne at least, to full page advertisements in the student diary, services directory, etc. for “family planning” referrals, abortion clinics, and a taxpayer / student funded promotion of the contraceptive mentality.

    Sometimes Christian, Muslim, and other students with religious and / or philosophical objections to abortion / contraception simply ripped those pages out of the diary.

    Still, we paid for them, and there were other times when a student could not opt-out.

    O-week packs came with condoms and abortion clinic referral information, student money (collected as part of the compulsory amenities & services fee) was regularly spent on anti-Catholic, anti-Pope, anti-male, anti-Jewish, anti-Musliam, etc. political and cultural campaigns.

    This militant secularism (neo-Paganism?), was regularly disguised as neutral / professional / academic advice, or worse – promoted as an essential service to young people.

    This made involuntary student unionism a huge issue with a whole segment of students who might otherwise have ignored the VSU push.

    I can’t see how Ellis’s changes will, in this context, aid our freedom of association, or protect our freedom of religion.


  8. Andrew

    On one point we agree, there should be choice. Perhaps then “Elite” universities could offer something to the undergraduate that is different, something other than larger class sizes.


  9. “Still, we paid for them, and there were other times when a student could not opt-out.”
    Big deal. I’d hate to think of the amount of money spent on religious societies in universities across the years. If you don’t like contraception etc. then you should have voted in a different student union. As for opting out, where I work, some of those societies still feel obliged to sit in places where I have to look at them everyday (and play loud music). Where’s my opt-out?


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