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End of an era: the collapse of the ‘buffer’ approach to the governance of Australian tertiary education

Abstract

For almost thirty years Australian tertiary education was administered by independent statutory commissions of one sort or another. They were based on the ‘buffer’ principle of having an intermediate organisation between governments and institutions; a format that owed its origins to the British UGC model. The most recent of the commissions - the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC) - was established in 1977 and made responsible for all sectors of post-secondary education. For the first eight years or so of its existence CTEC functioned as a relatively self-contained entity in the commonwealth bureaucratic arena and enjoyed a very high degree of authority over the development of the nation's colleges and universities. It earned an impressive reputation for stability, coherence and high standards in policy-making. During the mid-1980s, however, policies introduced by the newly elected Hawke Labor government to counter a rapidly deteriorating economic climate had a significant impact on tertiary education as a whole and on CTEC in particular. Under Labor, tertiary education came to be viewed as a vital infrastructure resource for industrial development. Federal government departments, which had previously taken little interest in tertiary education, became actively involved in the affairs of universities and colleges. This involvement eventually undermined the viability of CTEC's role. First, a variety of demands were imposed upon the Commission which it found impossible to meet. As a consequence it was depicted as unresponsive and incompetent. Second, a number of agencies developed new policy initiatives in the tertiary education sphere over which CTEC had no control. The outcome was a fragmented and confused policy environment. Third, initiatives introduced by departments provided fresh sources of external funds for institutions. The sudden availability of this finance created divisions within the tertiary education community which seriously compro-mised the Commission's planning procedures. By mid-1987 the combined influence of these developments had substantially attenuated CTEC's effectiveness as a policy-making body. At the end of 1987, as part of a wide-ranging series of reforms, the government decided to disband the Commission and transfer most of its functions to a newly created ‘super’ department. The presiding minister now possesses direct control over the activities of universities and colleges. This situation amounts to a significant change in the style of policy formulation and implementation in Australian tertiary education.

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Marshall, N. End of an era: the collapse of the ‘buffer’ approach to the governance of Australian tertiary education. High Educ 19, 147–167 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00137105

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Keywords

  • Tertiary Education
  • Policy Formulation
  • Policy Initiative
  • External Fund
  • Education Community