Universities call for relief from excessive regulation

Australia’s universities are groaning under the weight of excessive government regulations and are demanding that regulatory demands be reduced or eliminated. The 39 public universities estimate that they spend A$280 million (US$292 million) a year complying with requirements set down by various federal and state departments.

The peak body, Universities Australia, says a typical university spends more than A$1 million in meeting not even half the reporting obligations of just one government department.

“Australia’s university sector is one of the most regulated in the country, imposing an enormous cost and administrative burden,” says its chief executive, Belinda Robinson. “While we support the need for effective accountability, the existing regulatory and reporting regime is characterised by unchecked creep, duplication, fragmentation, inefficiency and waste.”

The estimated A$280 million a year cost of meeting government red-tape obligations is based on the impact of university compliance departments typically having 15-20 dedicated staff to meet the demands of 100 separate state and federal acts directly regulating their operations.

Universities incur direct regulatory compliance costs estimated to be at least A$3 million per university or A$120 million a year for the sector.

In a submission to a deregulation task force established by the conservative Opposition, widely expected to win government following next September’s election, Universities Australia says a typical university is also required to report more than 50 different data sets a year to the newly and vastly enlarged Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, comprising 200 reporting instances per year, and more than 50 data sets to other government departments.

The submission says total reporting costs are estimated at A$4 million per university, or about $160 million annually for the sector and, when combined, this equates to $280 million.

Other examples of the impact of unnecessary red tape include:
  • • Universities must provide annual financial reports to at least six different government departments – most of which have detailed 140+ page guidelines on what is reported, how it is audited and who approves it. The requirements and templates all differ, forcing universities to rework the same information multiple times.
  • • About 60 staff, costing more than A$6 million a year, are employed to report in the event of a university defaulting on a course for an international student, despite the fact no university has been known to have defaulted.
  • • Universities in Queensland are required to report to the state government every time a staff member travels overseas or whenever the university enters a contract over A$10,000.
  • • A university researcher typically spends up to six weeks a year preparing applications for research grants that have on average a 20% to 30% success rate.
To minimise costly red tape, Universities Australia calls for:
  • • A new national university data centre managed by a single government department to administer all data collections from universities.
  • • The Productivity Commission to conduct a review of the regulatory burden on universities, including duplication between jurisdictions.
  • • The minister responsible to implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendations.
  • • The relevant department to audit and report annually on regulations, including any increases.
  • • A national target for reducing regulations, set by the government.
“There is a plethora of agencies with tentacles that reach into the day-to-day operations of universities, including the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, Excellence in Research for Australia, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Department of Defence, and state and territory governments and other government agencies,” Robinson says.

“The dead weight of unnecessary, redundant and duplicative regulation and reporting not only leads to waste in the allocation of university and government resources, it also diverts substantial funds away from the core business of universities: teaching, scholarship and research.”