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Backing Off on Higher Ed Regulation

August 9, 2013

A new report released by Australia's education minister, Kim Carr, calls for stripping the country's two-year-old national higher education regulator of much of its power. The review says the Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency should abandon its “command and control” approach to universities and focus on new institutions and courses.

The report says TEQSA should also be stripped of its quality assurance functions, along with some of its commissioners.

Quality assurance is about encouraging institutions to improve, while regulation merely requires them to meet minimum standards. The report argues that other existing bodies can better handle quality assurance and that regulation of established universities is best managed through funding agreements and one-on-one negotiations known as “mission-based compacts.”

The debate is likely to resonate with observers of American higher education, where the discussion about the proper role of accreditation and government regulation is simmering, too.

The new report appears to be at odds with a 2008 review of Australian higher education, known as the Bradley Review, that called for a strong national regulator with the power to register and -- in extreme cases -- close down established universities. But the vice chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Fred Hilmer, said the need for a strong national regulator had lost “urgency” since then because expectations of scores of new private colleges had not come about.

“Ninety-plus percent of students are still with the established public universities, and they don’t need a TEQSA,” Hilmer said.

However, Gavin Moodie, a policy analyst at RMIT University, said the report did not acknowledge the “substantial failures” of universities in the years before the Bradley Review.  “Those failures seem to have been stopped by reducing education’s pathway to migration, not by any improvement in higher education regulation, (and they) could emerge again,” Moodie said.

University administrators have been quietly seething over their treatment by TEQSA during applications for re-registration. And they have openly criticized “onerous” reporting requirements, particularly TEQSA’s 47-page questionnaire on “third-party arrangements” such as overseas operations and subcontracted courses.

Some commentators say these are the aspects of university operations that require most scrutiny. But a co-author of the new report, Kwong Lee Dow, a former University of Melbourne vice chancellor, said that all universities now had offshore operations and regulators should target them only if there were signs of trouble.

“You don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach, as TEQSA has been doing, and say we’ll put a red flag up first and then we’ll ask about it,” Lee Dow said.

Queensland University of Technology vice chancellor Peter Coaldrake said the report’s recommendations would not make universities a “protected species.” And the leader of Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven, said heavy-handed regulation of higher education was unnecessary because potential students became aware quickly if institutions were in trouble.

Adrian McComb, executive officer of the Council of Private Higher Education, said the report was even-handed, with its proposal of “earned autonomy” applying to established private colleges as well as universities.

McComb said TEQSA had taken over nine months and requisitioned hundreds of documents before re-registering one longstanding private college. Another had been forced to submit 20 kilograms of documentation to get a course accredited, he said.

Carr has yet to respond to the report. However, writing in The Australian Sunday, in an essay entitled "Ensuring universities are free to flourish," he committed to giving universities more autonomy and increasing the significance of compact discussions.

 

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