The Anomaly of Higher Education in Australian Federalism

Stream: Panel 47 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Higher Education Policy 
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 4.00 pm – 5.30 pm


Australia is unusual among federations in the extent to which responsibility for policy, funding and operation of the higher education system (HES) has been assumed by the national level of government. Within Australian federalism, the HES is also unusual in the way centralisation has gone apparently unresisted and unchallenged by State governments, with no attempt to reverse the process or even involve States more closely. Yet State governments have an important stake within the HES. Most universities operate under State legislation; States have primary responsibility for schools (the largest source of university students); most university students study in their home State; State governments have a large stake in the VET system which intersects closely with HE; State governments are major employers of university graduates; and States invest in university research. All these factors would lead one to expect State governments to take an active interest in participating in HES policy and practice – yet this has not occurred. Ironically, one exception has been the development by some States of policies towards international higher education – an HES policy area that would appear to be clearly a Commonwealth responsibility. For its part, the Commonwealth has been content to retain control, despite States having the levers described above and despite differences in State demographic and economic structures which suggest a ‘one size fits all’ policy regime might be inappropriate. This paper outlines the history of HE policy-making as seen through a federalism lens and seeks to explain its centralisation dynamics.


John Phillimore (Presenter), Curtin University
John Phillimore is the Executive Director of the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University. He has 30 years' experience working in universities and as a senior adviser to government ministers in Western Australia, including two years as the head of intergovernmental relations in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

Alan Fenna (Presenter), Curtin University
Alan Fenna is Professor of Politics at the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University. He publishes in the areas of Australian politics and government; Australian and comparative federalism; economic policy; social policy; and constitutional issues. He served as 2009-10 President of APSA.

Paul Koshy, Curtin University
Paul Koshy is a Research Fellow in the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Paul’s research has covered areas in labour and education economics, economic impact analysis, competition policy, and national student equity policy and the drivers of higher education policy in Australia.