Australia's higher education regulator has announced "streamlined" approvals for providers with a solid track record.
A less onerous process for re-registration will begin in January, with fast-tracked reaccreditation of courses perhaps closer to midyear, a spokesman for the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the government's main quality control agency, said this month.
TEQSA also promises a simplified risk framework and no more than one quality assurance survey a year.
The former tertiary education minister, Craig Emerson, promised a review of higher education red tape in May.
Emerson promised top-quality universities less vetting under an "earned autonomy" model and called on TEQSA to propose "immediate actions" to reduce the regulatory burden.
In its latest newsletter, the agency says there is "scope for a reconsideration of the checks and balances in the higher education regulatory framework, and hence, TEQSA's practice of regulation."
It sets out a series of steps, including streamlining of approvals, but says these actions mostly involve the speeding up of a reform program that TEQSA already had in the works before Emerson's intervention.
And the agency reminds the government of its own "key interest in maintaining and strengthening domestic and international confidence in the quality of Australian higher education."
The push in Australia mirrors calls by elite universities in the United States that established institutions should gain much more leeway from accreditors.
Meanwhile, as part of its first round of reregistrations, TEQSA has handed out approvals to the Australian National University, Flinders, Monash, Murdoch, and the University of Technology, Sydney. Other approvals are due soon.
Jon Baldwin, who joined Murdoch last year as deputy vice chancellor for professional services after serving as registrar for the University of Warwick in Britain, welcomed TEQSA's announcement of streamlined processes.
"It was tough being one of the first cabs off the rank [for re-registration]," Baldwin said. "You've got no experience bank to draw on to know how to demonstrate compliance [with the threshold standards]."
Those standards are being rewritten -- partly in light of the experience of institutions such as Murdoch -- by the Higher Education Standards Panel under the former vice chancellor Alan Robson.
Baldwin said Emerson's red tape review might have been been "a very good trigger" to encourage TEQSA to bring forward ideas for streamlining.
"The idea that universities in Australia have got a long list of standards with which they must comply does risk an impression that established institutions are not to be trusted," he said.
Under TEQSA's changes, providers with "strong and mature quality records and no significant risks in their risk profile" will be able to use streamlined re-registration with a smaller number of standards and "a minimum evidence base." Likewise, providers with many past approvals for courses will qualify for streamlined reaccreditation involving fewer standards and "a focused evidence base."
It appears that providers will be unable to challenge in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal their exclusion from fast-tracked approvals. But a spokesman for TEQSA said the agency was open to talks with institutions about the approval process.
Baldwin said it was important to handle regulation thoughtfully so that the right perceptions were created.
"You need to show internationally that you value, respect and support your universities," he said.
"If there is a perception that they are to be judged by a simplistic regulatory framework, that's not a good look.
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