Déjà vu in Australian higher education - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Déjà vu in Australian higher education

History repeats itself, often with a sense of irony only those with long memories can fully appreciate. In a move evocative of a plot twist in a rather predictable novel, the Australian government is resurrecting a centralised body much like the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) it once enthusiastically dismantled. This time, they promise it will be better, shinier, and more centralised, with control over university admissions, funding, and maybe even what brand of pencils academics can use.

The original TEC was born in the 1970s, when flared pants were fashionable and bureaucratic behemoths were seen as the solution to every problem. The TEC was supposed to bring order and equality to higher education. Instead, it became a lumbering dinosaur, choking on red tape and inefficiency until the government, in a rare moment of clarity, decided to pull the plug in the 1980s. Innovation was the new mantra, and universities were to be liberated from the shackles of central control.

Fast-forward to today, and the government seems to have forgotten why it axed the TEC in the first place. The new body, the Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC), promises to iron out all those pesky disparities in funding, ensure standardised equality across the board, and generally make everything peachy. Sounds great, right? Except it’s not.

Here’s the thing about centralised bodies: they are the antithesis of innovation. Bureaucrats, bless their hearts, are excellent at creating mountains of paperwork and taking eons to respond to emails but not so great at fostering creativity or responding swiftly to change. The only thing they standardise is mediocrity.

What we need in higher education is not more control but more competition. Think about it. Giving universities the freedom to innovate allows them to tailor their offerings to meet the needs of their students and their communities. They can experiment with new teaching methods, collaborate with industries, and develop cutting-edge research without waiting for a nod from some distant bureaucratic overlord.

Australia already has a Tertiary Education Quality Assurance Agency (TEQSA), a Soviet-style bureaucracy that generates mountains of paperwork, takes months to answer even a simple query, and whose staff spend most of their time on training courses. No one believes that TEQSA has improved the quality of Australian higher education, least of all the students. Will TEQSA be disbanded? Don’t be naïve. ATEC will not replace TEQSA; universities will have to deal with both.

Given the new body promises to oversee funding allocations, admissions policies, and possibly even curriculum standards, there will be considerable latitude for duplication with TEQSA. Adding another layer of bureaucracy with overlapping functions is like hiring a second gardener to mow the same lawn. It’s redundant, confusing, and a waste of resources. Bureaucracies have an insidious way of growing beyond their original remit, gobbling up funds and time as they expand their control.

Competition, on the other hand, drives improvement. When universities compete for students, funding, and prestige, they are motivated to offer the best possible education and services. Competition leads to a diverse ecosystem of institutions, each with unique strengths and specialisations, catering to a wide range of needs and preferences.

Imagine if our universities were free to compete on a level playing field. They could develop niche programs, partner with local businesses for hands-on training, and create unique learning environments. Students would benefit from a broader array of choices, and employers would have access to graduates with various skills and experiences.

Innovation flourishes in an environment where institutions are encouraged to take risks and try new things. This dynamism propels industries forward and keeps them relevant. Higher education should be no different.

Instead of resurrecting the TEC, let’s dismantle the barriers to competition. Reduce the regulatory burden on universities and let them operate with the autonomy needed to adapt and thrive. Provide transparency in outcomes so students can make informed choices about where to study based on the quality and relevance of the education offered. Support universities in their efforts to innovate and excel rather than tying them up in bureaucratic red tape.

As Karl Marx famously observed, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Let’s not allow the revival of the TEC to become a farce. Instead, let’s champion a system that values competition, fosters innovation, and ultimately serves the needs of students and society far better than any centralised control ever could.

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and former Vice-Chancellor at Macquarie, Brunel and Murdoch universities.

Photo by cottonbro studio