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,Â 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be approved by DEST, which makes for a huge bureaucracy when a university decides to createÂ a new course or scrap an outdated one.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.