A PhD in Red Tape

I’m still working through the details of Julie Bishop’s plan to reduce the red-tape burden for universities, but an interview in the SMH today, John Garnaut and David Crawshaw discover that it involves asking the states to hand over control of universities to the federal government. There may be some economies of scale from doing this, but it doesn’t seem to be a first-order issue (by contrast with the US, where state legislatures regularly meddle with state university curricula and admissions policies). Instead, I’d be keen to see Bishop cut the red-tape that the federal education department (DEST) imposes on universities. At present, any course change has to be approved by DEST, which makes for a huge bureaucracy when a university decides to create a new course or scrap an outdated one. The most painful anecdote I’ve heard is that when an ANU econometrics course was moved from first to second semester, they were told that they had to get DEST permission.*

The simpler answer is simply to combine flexibility and a big stick. The way to prevent unscrupulous universities from mucking students around isn’t to micromanage them, it’s to give them a chance to do their best, and impose nasty penalties if they behave badly, and churn out ill-prepared students. When outputs are pretty easy to measure, you don’t need to regulate the input mix.

* Update: Andrew Norton tells me that the DEST rules don’t require this. Perhaps in this instance, ANU is caught up in red streamers, rather than red tape. Nonetheless, constraints on what we teach, how many people we teach, and what we charge them could be much less burdensome in a system where universities were judged more on outputs.

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11 Responses to A PhD in Red Tape

  1. Daniel says:

    Andrew, my question is:

    Can you ever extract improving systems like tertiary education or better water management from the power-based issue of federalism? Everytime I hear about these issues it just feels like it has more to do with ultimate control, rather than improved quality.

    Is that too cynical?

  2. I hate to defend DEST, but in very few cases is its permission required to create new courses or end outdated courses. Student places are allocated to one of twelve ‘funding clusters’ (seven from next year), and within those clusters (econometrics shares one with accounting, business, marketing, economics, and tourism) universities can generally move between courses as they choose.

    The main exceptions are new places, areas of skills shortage, and a couple of languages.

  3. invig says:

    Nice one!!!!!!

  4. Kevin Cox says:

    I am told that the reporting requirements of DEST is a major burden on Universities. When we find that most Universities have about the same number of administrative staff as teachers then there is something wrong. The proportion of admin staff has increased since there has been greater federal control and I suspect it is no accident.

    DEST should get out of the business of trying to see that money is well spent by looking at the internals and let a true market for students evolve. That is, it looks at the outputs and sees if the outputs in terms of graduates and quality of graduates is satisfactory and stay right away from the business of specifying how to do things.

    e.g. The sort of thing it could do from the current budget is say – we need more dentists and call for Universities to bid for funds to train more dentists rather than say “there will be more dentists trained and we will start up a new course at this place to do it”.

  5. Kevin – I agree that universities could be run more efficiently, but the ratios of academic to non-academic staff has been quite stable over time, with around 57% of staff in non-academic duties. However, this is not just administrators. It includes maintenance, library, IT, lab tech, and student services (from counselling to sport) staff as well.

  6. Paul Frijters says:

    the folk belief I’ve been told is that its the state rules for budget accountability that have created overly heavy compliance burdens. To fly domestic to a conference and you want to pay from your own research account, you need to jump a lot of hoops (prior permission, statements of supervisors, copies of the conference) and when I querie this I get told it is in order to conform to legislation. I dont know whether that’s true or just a fig-leaf but its certainly a story you hear a lot. If federal budget accountability rules are more sensible that could be a real bonus. Are they?

  7. Andrew Leigh says:

    Paul, you’re the one who has experience on this — I’ve only ever worked at ANU. Does it seem like the extra admin burden at QUT is caused by the fact that you have two layers of government, where ANU effectively only has one?

    And if the admin burden is getting you down, would you like to come back? ;-)

  8. conrad says:


    I have to do all those things to go to a conference, even when the money comes from someone not associated with the university. The only difference is I don’t need evidence for the conference excluding what I write down (unless the money is the universities — and then I need a copy of the abstract etc. ). So perhaps you are getting made to suffer a bit more.

    There are more fun things that constantly bring down the standard of everything — like the number of forms people have to fill in to get a gift for a guest lecture (say, a $100 book vouture for a 2 hour lecture) — so many forms that many people won’t do them. Trying to get even a small thesis marked externally and the marker paid also requires more forms than I care to think of. It reminds of Douglas Adams and Vogons. Everything needs a form, signed in triplicate, lost….

  9. Kevin Cox says:


    I find it hard to believe that an organisation whose main purpose is helping both for undergraduate and post graduate students gain knowledge is doing a good job if 57% of the staff are not involved directly with students in their learning. The fact that the number is stable is an indictment on the system not an excuse. Most of us believe the reason we have universities is for students to mingle and interact with other students and staff in the search for understanding and knowledge. If the majority of the staff employed (and I suspect that a fair proportion of the 43% of academic staff never come in contact with a student in a learning way) then the system is almost certainly not performing as well as it should with respect to student learning.

  10. Kevin – I agree that it is counter-intuitive, and my personal experience suggests that there is certainly room for more efficiency, through improved internal processes and less external regulation. I was just correcting your initial statement that things were getting worse in this regard, a common perception for which I can find no evidence in the statistics. I suspect more detailed analysis would show shifts in patterns of non-academic employment over the years, with automation replacing clerical workers, but IT support, marketing, and bureaucratic compliance staff all growing in numbers.

  11. I should add that two meanings of ‘red tape’ get blurred in these discussions (going back to Andrew’s original post). There is excessive reporting and filling in of forms, which adds slightly to expense and detracts from convenience, but does not actually stop universities making sound strategic decisions. The minor levels of duplicate reporting to the state and the Commonwealth would fall into this category. Then there is the red tape that cripples the sector – price control, overly prescriptive allocations of student places etc. Price control need not add any further bureaucratic work than reading the legislation, but it is very damaging.

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