Micro-Managing Red Tape

Rumour has it that the Australian universities will soon start a new assault on red tape and over-regulation. They claim that government bureaucracy is wasting millions of taxpayers’ dollars a year. In their vision for Australian higher education (Our Universities: Backing Australia’s Future, released in 2003) the Howard government agreed that:

“..the reporting requirements of universities need to be streamlined and that the resulting savings should be re-invested in education. Significant reduction in regulatory intervention, to which the Government is committed, will require the development of agreed measures of educational outcomes that can replace the present heavy emphasis on inputs reporting and process monitoring.”

In November 2003, the former Minister Dr. Brendan Nelson stated:

“I have agreed to a series of changes to the higher education reform legislation to significantly reduce the level of red tape and simplify the administration of the reform programmes”

Obviously, they have been unsuccessful in reducing red tape. Australian higher education has been radically marketised in the past decades. This should have given universities the flexibility to operate more entrepreneurial, more effective and more responsive. Marketisation often comes with a reduction in funding and this also happened in Australia. However, a reduction in funding should mean that there will be ‘less strings attached’.

Marketisation in Australia has indeed led to decreased funding (per student) of Australian higher education (see for instance chapter 10 in this report, table B1.4 in this OECD Excel file, this publication of the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee). However, somehow this has gone together with an increase in micro-management and micro-regulation instead of an increase in flexibility. In short: red tape is everywhere in Australian universities, despite (or due to?) increased marketisation.

Vice Chancellors agree. Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Chubb said red tape and regulation had continued to grow:

“All sorts of approvals have to be gained for courses that shouldn’t be required. We have to predict basically 12 months in advance the subjects students will enrol in. Given a third haven’t finished school when we make those predictions, it is unnecessarily complicated.”

University of Western Sydney vice-chancellor Janice Reid said compliance costs now amounted to millions of dollars every year:

“The explosion in fine-grained information demands by government and the ever more prescriptive policy environment is limiting our ability to be innovative and responsive to students. It means directing resources to huge compliance and reporting exercises and away from teaching research. It would be costing millions of dollars across the sector.”

I completely agree with their observations. At the same time I would advise them to take on a more critical perspective on their internal operations. Red tape is not just caused by governmental micro-management and an abundance of accountability demands from governments but also by over-management by the university central-level offices. Of course the two are interrelated: the micro-management of the government triggers the need for more managers and administrators at the university level. But still, I think there is a lot of efficiency to be gained internally. Of course that does not mean that the new Minister of education is off the hook..

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