A special government briefing in Canberra on Tuesday and Wednesday — on crucial legislation covering the operations of post-secondary education institutions across the country — turned out to be a debacle, Crikey understands. Representatives from the main education organisations, including the universities, TAFE colleges and the private sector, were appalled at the presentations made by Education Department bureaucrats.

Although those selected to attend the confidential briefing were told they would have plenty of time to study the draft legislation, due to be presented to Parliament in 10 days, they did not receive the 400-page document until last Friday and were stunned by its punitive tone. Those present were in agreement the legislation should not be tabled but subject to a substantial rewrite and this time with the sector involved in a series of consultations.

University representatives could not believe their eyes when they saw one section stating the federal act will override state legislation and that a university could be deregistered, despite being established by a state parliament, with the Commonwealth immune from any state action.

“The whole event was terrible, I’ve never seen anything so unprofessional and undemocratic,” said one of those present. “One of the key issues was that the legislation does not articulate with the state acts that establish universities or the colleges. They didn’t even have a lawyer present who could explain how the federal and state acts would relate to each other.”

The legislation will establish a new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to replace the existing Australian Universities Quality Agency, which, while it conducts regular audits of all higher education institutions and releases public reports on its findings, lacks any power to oblige institutions to adopt its recommendations.

The Group of Eight research intensive universities, in particular, is strongly opposed to what it says will be a highly intrusive new system — although just how intrusive the group did not realise until this week. Vice-chancellor concerns were raised by the lack of debate and consultation surrounding the drafting of the legislation and these were hardly eased when the briefing was called with key players being excluded. Their worst fears will be confirmed when they see reports of what happened on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Chair of the Go8, Professor Alan Robson, said before this week’s briefing that the legislation establishing the new tertiary education regulator had been drafted “in a closed manner with rather limited consultation with universities and other interest groups”.

“There are basic policy purposes and fundamental issues about university autonomy which have not been discussed,” Robson said. “It would appear as though the government is trying to ram this legislation through even though Labor was committed to evidence-based policy formulation and a respect for university autonomy, academic freedom and mission differences among institutions in its pre-election statements in 2007 and 2010.”

Robson, who heads the University of Western Australia, said “the tightly balanced federal parliament” should demand higher standards of the government’s policy process. He said universities had yet to see Labor’s pre-election commitments reflected in government practices and there had been “a disconcerting lack of transparency in the public policy processes” relating to higher education standards and quality.