At the turn of the century New Zealand experts proposed an independent  tertiary education commission but the government wasn’t going to delegate policy to a an autonomous body and instead created a funding body, with admin and supervision roles (CMM,  HERE).

So what could a commission to oversee the O’Kane Accord do?

The Go8 proposal

The Australian Tertiary Education Commission the Group of Eight proposes to the Accord would be a statutory agency, governed by a board mostly appointed by the government, but at arm’s length from it.  In NZ machinery of government terms, it would be an independent Crown entity, with three functions:

* advice to government

* acting as the broker for institutions’ funding agreements with government

* research and analysis to create a solid evidence base for the system

Its advice to government would be within “the prescribed mechanisms and a funding envelope determined by the government[1]”.

While it’s not entirely clear exactly where the proponents draw the line between the roles of the commission and the minister, I infer the Go8 aims to avoid the problem described above – that is, the commission provides high-level strategic advice but the minister then sets policy, taking account of the commission’s advice – or not.

Once the policy is made, it would then be for the commission to work within it.

This is a crucial point; experience suggests that  government would be highly unlikely to accept a design in which the commission determined policy.  The Go8 needs to be more explicit on precisely where the line is to be drawn between the commission and the minister. As long as the government retains the core tertiary education policy function, it would be workable – the minister could accept, modify or reject the commission’s high-level advice, remaining accountable to the public for system outcomes and responsible to cabinet for ensuring tertiary education policy was well articulated to government’s social and economic strategies.

Because the proposal includes a requirement for the commission’s advice to be published, the minister’s decision on the advice – and the justification for that decision – would be communicated publicly.  Here in NZ, that process works well for Independent Crown Entities, such as the Climate Change Commission. The climate change minister usually accepts the commission’s advice as is but modifies or reschedules some of the recommendations.

Brokering funding agreements between government and providers sounds straightforward, but …

The commission would be well placed to ensure that the agreements, in sum, add up to a coherent direction for the system that reflects the outcomes government, the commission and the public want from tertiary education.  BUT … the scale of that task – covering the universities, the whole of the TAFE system, all other providers …could be immense.  Certainly, that has proved challenging for the NZ Tertiary Education Commission, EC, an organisation responsible, at its peak, for 27 public institutions, a group of industry training organisations and close to 200 (mostly small) private training providers.

The research and analysis function is certainly a necessary condition for better policy and for better system performance 

The G08 is right to make it one of the main planks of their design.  Australia has good data on HE and VET.T he challenge is to do more with it. For instance, … applying data science techniques to integrated to identify factors associated with access to and success in tertiary education and to calculate the effect size of each. That approach has been used with great success in NZ.

It is positive that the proposal sees a federation that draws together the resources of existing data, analysis, monitoring, research and evaluation groups (including the excellent National Centre for Vocational Education Research).

However, it is not clear how the federated institute proposed by the Go8 would work with the Department of Education’s higher education data, statistics and publication function and with TEQSA’s monitoring and quality data.

All three have legitimate, different, but overlapping interests in the same data.  The risk is inconsistency and even, competition, between them. Ambiguity on how the new group works with the existing government teams (which are responsible for the administrative data collections in higher education, for the maintenance of the core unit-record datasets, for forecasting demand, for budget policy costings, preparation of statistics ….) would cause grief to both sides. Independence from government shouldn’t lead to duplication or cutting the new unit off from its bread and butter.

Proponents need to think very hard about this.

As for the TAFE directors …

While the Go8 advocated for the creation of a tertiary education commission, the TAFE Directors Accord; submission is emphatically against it.

Perhaps they looked at Peter Noonan’s argument for a commission in The Conversation and figured that such a one would simply increase their transaction costs. Perhaps they were concerned at the inevitable degrading of their links to their state governments.

Or perhaps they concluded a better resourced, politically savvy HE sector would crowd them out, reducing their profile and their influence.

Or, perhaps they looked to the far east and just didn’t like what they saw in New Zealand.

There’s another big idea for the Accord

– greater integration between HE and VET.  That’s something NZ also knows about – coming up in CMM

[1] The words quoted are from the paper by Croucher and Massaro, whose submission to the Accord proposes a commission very like the Go8 proposal. (see CMM HERE)

Roger Smyth was a manager at Lincoln University, NZ until 2002 when he went to work in the Tertiary Education Group at the NZ Ministry of Education.  Since 2017, he has been a tertiary education consultant 


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