The Unified National System of Higher Education - Action in Haste and Repentence at Leisure?

Year: 1991

Author: HARROLD, Dr Ross

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The 1988 policy changes which instituted the unified national system (UNS) of higher education were momentous for the institutions themselves and for the whole community. Proposals for the changes appeared 'out of the blue' and were authorised barely one year later. After 30 years in which governments' relations with institutions were 'buffered' by intermediary statutory commissions, the Commonwealth dispensed with its Tertiary Education Commission and established direct contacts with individual institutions. In doing so, it found novel ways around long-standing constitutional difficulties in dealing with State universities. It also induced major changes in the number, size and structure of institutions and of their teaching, research and administrative behaviour. The research issues arising from the policy changes and their implementation are manifold and complex. Their documentation and investigation is important, not only because of their intrinsic research interest, but also because they provide useful lessons about the emergence, authorization and implementation of major restructuring policies introduced into well established operating relationships. One challenge in researching the UNS is to isolate its policies and effects from those of other concurrent developments. An alternative challenge is to conceive the UNS as being one manifestation of more general financial, economic and political developments of the 1980s. The research problem would then be to separate the 'continuity' of policy events from the discontinuous elements resulting from the unique contributions of the relevant policy makers. This paper addresses but a few of these intriguing matters. Its focus is on the economic and political processes of policy making and on the use of finance as a policy instrument. Research issues will be roughly organized around questions arising from the stages of the policy process: issue emergence, policy authorization, implementation and evaluation. The first concerns the factors and personalities which lead to the writing of the Green and White Papers (Dawkins, 1987, 1988). The second investigates the rather surprising fact that the many organisational and administrative changes of the UNS were authorised by financial legislation introduced during the Budget Session of Commonwealth Parliament. The third looks at how finance has been used as the basic means by which the changes intended by the authorised policy have been put in place, and the difficulties and limitations associated with the use of this instrument. Lastly, questions are asked about the effect of changes on essential university purposes.