Universities back war on red tape

Australia's conservative federal government has "declared war on red and green tape" and plans to hold the first of two 'Repeal Days' on 26 March, as part of its programme to abolish more than 8,000 laws and regulations it claims have clogged the arteries of federal agencies for years.

Copied from America, where the US Congress has regular repeal days, the government will present an "omnibus red tape repeal bill" to parliament next month which it says represents the biggest single reduction in federal laws since the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901.

Among the bureaucrats likely to be rejoicing on the day are senior officials among the 63,000 professional and administrative staff in Australia's universities. Many will be hoping the event results in a sharp reduction in the vast mass of reporting requirements they handle.

Universities collectively spend A$280 million (US$253 million) every year on "regulatory compliance and reporting", says the peak higher education organisation, Universities Australia.

The war on red tape means onerous distribution of the same data to different agencies will be abolished, a single higher education research data collection developed, and streamlining of reporting and information collecting adopted.

Reviews of HE red tape

Two reviews commissioned by the former Labor government last year highlighted the demands placed on university administrators by an intricate web of regulations governing their operations.

Reports of the two reviews drew attention to the burdens on universities caused by ever-increasing quantities of entwined rules and regulations imposed by successive Liberal and Labor governments - at the federal and state levels.

Responding to the reports Christopher Pyne, education minister in the new conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, said the government had accepted all 27 recommendations from one review and all 11 from the other.

Pyne said he wanted universities to be able to spend more time "delivering the best higher education possible [by] freeing them from unnecessary reporting".

"I have directed the Department of Education to work with Universities Australia to implement the reviews' recommendations with UA providing an assessment, including an estimate of the cost savings to universities by next December."


Pyne said that in implementing the recommendations, the department would:
  • • Develop a single higher education research data collection.
  • • List annual reporting requirements to enhance understanding of the scale of reporting and to identify areas of duplication.
  • • Develop a single equity report.
  • • Remove duplication in reporting capital asset management.
  • • Streamline data collections by integrating international student and financial reporting in one information management system.
Chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, said that by accepting the reviews' recommendations, the government had taken an important step "in releasing universities from regulatory and reporting confinement.

"Taken together, these recommendations will produce savings over time for government through increased efficiency and will help to reduce compliance costs for universities, allowing them to divert more resources to the core business of teaching, learning and research," Robinson said.

One agency singled out by the universities for special attention was their main overseer - the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, known as TEQSA.

It was established in 2011 to act, along with a higher education standards panel and a qualifications framework council, as the watchdog of academic standards and teaching quality. But complaints from universities became increasingly shrill at the endless paperwork and the doubling up involved in meeting TEQSA's requirements.

The panel conducting the review said the agency had been established in an "already crowded regulatory environment" and it urged a sharp reduction in its functions and the number of its commissioners.

Robinson said the review report showed ways of ensuring the quality agency operated as a responsive partner with higher education "rather than as an adversary".

"The report foresees that in the regulatory world of the future, universities will be primarily self-regulating and acknowledges that academic culture is an important regulator of teaching, learning and research," she said.

Green tape

Higher education is not the only sector demanding some relief from bureaucratic demands.

The government has also responded to calls by business and other groups to extend its war to include 'green tape' and axe more than 240 federal and state policies related to climate change and energy efficiency, as well as slashing unwieldy environmental assessments and approvals processes.

Abbott is an admitted climate sceptic and has appalled environmentalists with his criticisms of actions the previous government took to tackle climate change. As well as dispensing with a science ministry and drawing up plans to abolish Labor's carbon tax, he has already promised to abolish 8,000 public service positions.

Repeal Day, then, could be quite an occasion for celebrations among university staff, business people and mining companies. The bureaucrats might begin to wonder, though, if in eliminating so many laws, rules and regulations their jobs could go as well.