Australian commission ‘risks becoming too-hard basket’

Proposed body must have ‘mundane’ expertise and avoid being the ‘long grass of policy’, new group says

June 21, 2024
Rubbish bin for collection in Melbourne
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The proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission (Atec) risks becoming a too-hard basket where promising ideas are sent to die, an expert group has warned.

Atec is “the gilt statue on the mantlepiece of the Universities Accord”, according to newly launched discussion forum The Higher Good (THG). But “it’s become an easy dumping ground” for policies “flung, not-inadvertently, beyond the next vote”.

The commission must not be consigned to “the long grass of policy – a cheap place for policymakers to say, ‘a future body will deal with this complicated issue’,” THG’s founding members warn in their first article. Atec must also avoid the trap of trying to please everyone, in a sector that “has failed to agree on many basic issues”.

“Attempting to make a body which meets everyone’s satisfaction might result in no-one’s needs being met,” the article warns. “It is not a matter of building consensus among stakeholders’ present interests, but alignment with broader principles and strategies.”

Above all, the commission should not overlook the lashings of expertise within the sector. It should be driven not necessarily by “senior people in grey suits” but by operatives – those who have done the “mundane” work of translating policy objectives and political realities into institutional level practice.

If the commission lacks this sort of expertise, the implications could be “dire”. Policy history is littered with statutory agencies that “operate in silos and fail in their endeavours” because they do not grasp what they are “supposed to do”.

The commission is the topic of the moment, the new group says. “Now is the window…to think critically about the Atec. We shouldn’t miss the opportunity to shape the body into the organisation which will deliver the most benefit.”

THG sees its role as occupying the middle ground between the daily news cycle and the peer-reviewed research article. It offers “critical commentary with purpose”, dealing with issues that “can’t be argued away in a day. Few real-world questions have just one or two answers,” it notes.

Founding member Angel Calderon said the group wanted to remedy “the lack of policy debate” in Australian higher education.

“We don’t have many forums now,” said Mr Calderon, an RMIT University strategist who said he was speaking in a private capacity. “We don’t get together. We don’t discuss things.”

He said there were still opportunities for robust policy debate through state-based networks and the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, but that was about it. The situation overseas was much the same, as forums for discussion – through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, for example – dried up.

Mr Calderon said the government’s proposal to cap international enrolments exemplified the need for hands-on expertise in Atec. The change could cost the sector A$1.5 billion (£787 million) in the first year, rising to A$4 billion by year three, he warned.

“If it is implemented it will have serious consequences, and I don’t think people realise that. If we want a commission that is effective…it needs expertise on the things that are really happening in institutions, the sum of the parts.

“We could end up creating a monster that…at the end will deliver nothing.”

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