Issue Analysis

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Universities in a State: The Federal Case Against Commonwealth Control of Universities

Andrew Norton | IA56 | 24 March 2005

The Commonwealth Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, has suggested that the federal government assume full legal responsibility for universities. However, tranferring power over universities from the states to the Commonwealth would be a mistake.

  • At the current time, though most university government funding comes from the federal government, for Constitutional reasons the states are primarily responsible for university accreditation and governance.
  • The Commonwealth wants to eliminate these obstacles to its policy agenda.
  • The Commonwealth argues in favour of policy consistency.
  • However consistency is not a virtue if policies are identical but bad in every state.
  • Unfortunately the Commonwealth has a history of bad higher education policies which have created problems across the country while being ‘consistent’.
  • Federalism quarantines bad policy.
  • Federalism allows policy experimentation, which the Commonwealth implicitly admits by copying aspects of Victorian policy.
  • State governments are better able to monitor universities than the Commonwealth, and have less clustered legislative agendas to make necessary changes.
  • Centralised power over universities creates threats to academic freedom that are much reduced by the current division of power.
  • History shows that where national consistency is valuable it can be achieved through cooperation between governments, without creating long-term shifts in power or preventing states from withdrawing if things go badly.

Andrew Norton is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and Editor of POLICY magazine.

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