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Government outlines role of higher education ‘sector steward’

 Image: LanceB, via Getty Images

Consultation opens on new Australian Tertiary Education Commission and “managed growth funding system”

The forthcoming Australian Tertiary Education Commission will be asked to tackle short-term thinking, fragmented policy and poor resource allocation in the national higher education system, according to the Department of Education.

A departmental discussion paper says the commission will be a “sector steward” responsible for long-term reforms. It will oversee “enforceable mission-based compacts” with universities, as well as “higher education and research programmes”, the paper says.

The paper, along with another on a “managed growth funding system” for universities, was released for consultation on 21 June. The department is taking responses until 26 July.

A third paper, on “needs-based funding”, has been promised soon.

Commission details

The Australian Tertiary Education Commission would be established by legislation and be expected to coordinate its work with other agencies, including the Australian Research Council and Jobs and Skills Australia.

The creation of the commission is a recommendation of the Australian Universities Accord report, handed to education minister Jason Clare in December as part of a reform process for Australia’s higher education system.

The commission is due to be established by 1 July 2025 as an interim body, with a formal start date of 1 January 2026 and an external review scheduled “after several years”. Its membership is yet to be announced and the department wants recent senior university employees to be banned from taking up positions as commissioners.

A commission structure in the paper shows that there will be a dedicated First Nations commissioner and two deputy commissioners under a chief commissioner. The body would be housed in the Department of Education for accountability and financial purposes and generally report to the minister for education. However, on matters related to skills, it would report to the minister for skills and training.

The commission’s initial work would be focused on “key reforms”, such as the Accord’s recommendations, and “harmonisation” of the tertiary sector, the paper says.

The “mission-based compacts” could include specific goals on teaching, research and growth from universities, with the right to ask for information on progress. The commission will have “robust assurance and compliance functions, with powers to manage non-compliance”, the paper says.

Its “steward” role would include dealing with major crises and disruptions such as pandemics and the use of artificial intelligence—a role that has until now been partly filled by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. Teqsa is expected to continue its operations after the commission is established.

The commission will be responsible for overseeing funding allocation by establishing a “pricing framework” for the cost of courses, although “the government will remain the final decision-maker on pricing”, the paper says.

Funding system

The second consultation paper, on a “managed growth funding system”, reveals that the government would set the number of Commonwealth-supported places at public universities and other tertiary institutions nationally. Providers would then be allocated places to meet growth targets from the start of 2026, initially only in institutions that currently have supported places. Extra demand-driven funding would be allocated to “equity students”.

“The new system will more responsively allocate growth to align with student demand,” the paper says. “Factors that would be taken into account when negotiating [growth targets] with individual institutions would include student demand, institutional goals and missions, and institutional and sector sustainability”.

The number of students would also be capped, with institutions banned from keeping fees from any students above their allocation.

The paper says that after a transition phase, extra supported places under the growth targets would be allocated to providers that do not currently have Commonwealth-supported places.

Difficult role

The vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia responded to the papers with a statement saying it was important to get the reforms right and that it would work with the government on their design, but it did not endorse the details.

“The existing Job-Ready Graduates [fee structure] package has left universities to do more with less, which, unaddressed, will only make our role in meeting the government’s workforce targets more difficult,” the group’s chief executive Luke Sheehy said.

A statement from Clare said there would be “targeted consultation and feedback from stakeholders across the education landscape” to refine the detail of the proposals.