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.
Evans’ key response to my article is this passage:
Some have claimed that the move to a national regulator is an attempt by the Commonwealth to reach through the university gate to take away the academic freedom that is central to university life. Some have argued that the creation of a national regulator will open the door to political intrusion into universities’ affairs. My view is that precisely the opposite will happen.
Operating at arm’s length from the government of the day, TEQSA will act as a bulwark against inappropriate political inference. I expect that TEQSA will vigorously protect its independence.
The legislation I released last week explicitly prohibits a minister giving directions to an institution, precisely to ensure that regulatory decisions are made free from political interference.
I don’t think Evans is likely to interfere with academic freedom in a politicised way (though the standards he creates will limit what universities can do). My article was about what possibilities TEQSA opens for others who will want to pursue their political agendas through the regulator.
The key regulatory mechanism will be Higher Education Standards Framework, which will include academic standards. Under the TEQSA legislation, the Framework is not made independently of the minister, it is made by minister on the advice of Higher Education Standards Panel, which he or she appoints, and TEQSA, whose senior officers the minister also appoints, and state ministers who have no veto power.
So really we are relying very heavily on ministers (and the cabinets that instruct them) respecting the tradition of academic freedom. The legal mechanisms create some procedures ministers have to follow, but ultimately put the minister in a position of very great power. My judgment is that this is not a risk worth taking.