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States out of place in today's universities

By Scott Prasser - posted Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Last week the vice-chancellors of Australia's eight leading universities proposed a more deregulated higher education system, meant to be more responsive to changing circumstances than the present arrangements involving more than 30 institutions of different sizes and roles.

However, before this reform occurs the present anachronistic system - the Commonwealth largely funds universities but they continue to be established under state law - needs to end. This outdated arrangement should change so Australia has a national university system.

State governments should accept the recent offer by the Howard Government to take over the full responsibilities of universities from the states.


This would complete the revolution of increased federal government involvement in university education begun by the Menzies government 50 years ago when it appointed Sir Leslie Murray to report on how best to organise universities.

Murray's recommendations for increased federal funding and a greater federal role in setting teaching and research priorities were quickly accepted and soon implemented. So began the revolution of increased federal involvement in tertiary education - but no government has dared complete the task.

By 1971, after the Martin report led to the establishment of colleges of advanced education supported by triennial federal funding, the tertiary sector received 43 per cent of its funding from the federal government compared with 36 per cent from the states.

In 1973 the Whitlam government continued these trends taking over the full funding of CAEs, abolishing student fees and increasing university spending. The Fraser government focused on the relationship between education and labour market needs and caused numerous CAE amalgamations.

The Hawke-Keating governments abolished the CAEs, established the unified university system, developed performance indicators and implemented the present student fee arrangements.

Of course, the states largely welcomed these changes. It relieved them of a large expenditure burden they could not afford and of national policy responsibilities for which states cannot properly exercise.


Given these trends, the logic of a federal takeover of universities is as inexorable as its need is undeniable. It makes rejection of the Federal Government's takeover offer by academic unions and state governments, and the ambivalence by the federal Labor Opposition, somewhat inexplicable.

A federal takeover of universities and the establishment of a unified and national university sector is what everyone has long wanted. Successive Labor governments have cherished this goal since they bought into universities big time during the 1970s.

State governments have welcomed increasing federal involvement at every step. Many senior university managers wanting to reduce red tape and the dual federal-state system of control also argue for a federal takeover. It must surely be the goal of any new federal government wanting to ensure universities drive the knowledge economy more effectively than at present.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on June 13, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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