What now for higher education policy?

What might a hung parliament mean for higher education policy?

Even with a Liberal government, it is possible that a compulsory student amenities fee might return. A quick Google search this morning indicates that all three rural independents have supported such a fee in the past, though it may need ‘political’ funding to be quarantined (Labor’s policy specifically created a role for their comrades in the student unions). So it is possible that a revised bill that passed the new Labor-Green Senate post-1 July 2011 would also pass the House of Representatives.

If a Liberal government is formed, there are things that could be done by regulation – or lack thereof. Labor is promising a red-tape extravaganza with its so-called ‘compacts’ between the government and universities, its equity and participation funding, and an even more ill-conceived ‘performance’ funding program. All of these are based on departmental/ministerial discretion given force by legislative instruments.

The significance of these legislative instruments is that they are disallowable by either house of parliament. In the event of an equal vote the disallowance motion will be lost. So there is an asymmetry between legislation and guidelines: the government needs a majority to pass legislation, but it only needs a tie to defend its guidelines.

In the case of Labor’s ‘performance’ policy Gillard/Crean never got around to approving the guidelines, so Coalition inertia would dispose of this idea. There is no specific ‘compact’ legislation or guidelines, but existing funding agreement provisions would presumably have been the main basis. While a funding agreement will still be necessary to distribute Commonwealth-supported places to universities, the Coalition could not proceed with the micro-managing elements of the compacts.

Things are more complicated with the equity policy, which does have existing guidelines. The Coalition wants to reduce the funding to this program, which will require the guidelines to be changed, and in my view they should remove some of its more absurd provisions as well (such as micro-level requirements to allocate resources based on an arbitrary definition of low SES). It’s hard to to know how the independents would jump on an issue like this – and the savings involved may not warrant handing out yet more rural pork.

The Coalition could also use guidelines to include more TAFEs and private providers in the publicly funded system. There is a provision in the legislation to allocate so-called ‘national priority’ places to non-public unis. Somehow supporting the private University of Notre Dame’s expansion has become a ‘national priority’, so there is precedent for further such ‘national priorities’. My perception is that Labor is not necessarily opposed to this; Gillard extended ‘national priority’ places to Holmesglen TAFE. However the TAFEs and private providers should be wary of building their business models around guidelines: what one minister gives, another can take away.

The government’s so-called demand-driven system of higher education funding has not been legislated. However with the Coalition also indicating support for this it should go ahead as planned in 2012.

The HECS discounts for ‘voluntary’ work proposed by the Coalition have been supported by Labor in the past, so this policy is also likely to go ahead.

But overall, as in other policy areas, a hung parliament and the possibility of another election well before three years pass means that higher education institutions face considerable uncertainty.

7 thoughts on “What now for higher education policy?

  1. Andrew
    Where can I find universities’s financial statements?
    They are not on univ’s websites – perhaps they are tabled in State parliaments?

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  2. Ken – I think you will find that they are on university websites, in the annual report. Due to the inability of DEEWR to publish anything in a timely manner uni websites will contain the most up to date information, but it does eventually publish summary information for all unis. For some reason the latest (sic) 2008 data is missing, I will email it to you.

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  3. My bet is that nothing important will go anywhere if the Liberals form government — as long as the Greens have the balance of power in the senate anything major will be blocked. So I don’t predict uncertainty — more stagnation.

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  4. An Abbott government could cut funding for the higher education participation and partnership program regardless of the regulations by simply declining to appropriate funds to the program. There has been no talk of blocking supply since 1975 so presumably all parties will pass all money bills unamended, altho p’raps after some delay.

    Compacts could be implemented without regulation by a common law contract between the Commonwealth and the universities. The government would just have to get Parliament to appropriate the necessary funds in the budget and the rest could be handled by the minister. In Pape v Commissioner of Taxation [2009] HCA 23 the High Court of Australia gave the executive considerable discretion over the allocation of duly appropriated funds.

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  5. Gavin – There is a block appropriation for all the other grants in section 41-45 of HESA, with the distribution of the money by guidelines. Both HESA and the guidelines have already funded the equity programs until 2013.

    Re contracts, I would defer to better legal opinion but my view was that HESA constrains the agreements that the Commonwealth can make, and therefore may not support the level of discretion Carr wanted.

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  6. Nothing final, but no signs of flexibility. The issue will have to be settled politically – which puts it in the same limbo state that everything else is in.

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