Australian private colleges want easier route to higher status

Providers squabble over whether to relax rules for university colleges or jettison the category altogether

July 15, 2019
Gymnast getty
Source: Getty
High bar ‘the standards should not be so onerous as to make it virtually impossible to gain…that title’

Unachievable requirements are stopping Australian higher education providers from upgrading to university college status and breaking into the closed shop of universities, a review has been told.

Submissions to the government’s Review of Higher Education Provider Category Standards say onerous rules for registration as university colleges – including requirements to conduct research at the same standard as universities and to have fleshed out plans for conversion to full-blown universities within five years – have made universities a protected species.

Private colleges say the rules rob the sector of a vital institutional stepping stone, as demonstrated by the failure of any current institution to achieve university college status – and the lack of any new Australian universities in more than 20 years.

Alphacrucis College, which hopes to change its status next year, says the university college rank should be regarded “as a destination category in its own right” rather than a transition phase towards full university.

Internationally, the title is embraced by “specialised and prestigious institutions” such as University College London, it says. “Achieving this category would signal teaching excellence and an appropriate level of research and scholarship.”

But universities argue that Australia’s lack of university colleges shows that the category is obsolete. “[It] should be deleted as it has proven to be unnecessary and has the potential to dilute the value of the term ‘university’,” says Edith Cowan University’s submission.

Charles Darwin, Central Queensland, Curtin, Monash and Sunshine Coast universities also challenged the need for the university college category. “It should be removed,” the Group of Eight submission says.

But Sydney hospitality education specialist Kenvale College points out that university colleges are flourishing in the UK and Canada, and says Australian aspirants would qualify under those countries’ rules.

In Australia, only a “proto-university” is eligible, Kenvale’s submissions says. “There is no room for a higher education provider which offers high quality teaching within the context of substantial dedication to scholarly activity…and which does not entertain aspirations to be either a comprehensive university or a university of specialisation.”

Representative group Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA) says the current standards “set the bar too high” for registration as a university college, and “this is contrary to public interest”. Its submission says the university college title has “global recognition” and argues that a viable Australian version would allow for “greenfield entry” and more diversity in the country’s university sector.

IHEA says that while one of the purposes of the university category standards is to protect the university title, “the standards should not be so onerous as to make it virtually impossible to gain…that title”.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) says only three providers had applied for a change of category under its tenure, and all three had been rejected. TEQSA says that while the university college category is supposed to offer a “temporary transitional stage” for colleges making the jump to university status, any perception that it is easier to qualify as a university college than a full-blown university is “largely illusory”.

The TEQSA submission says research is the limiting factor for higher education providers seeking to upgrade their status, because they must demonstrate the capability to offer and self-accredit higher degrees by research in at least three broad fields of study – despite having no access to public research funding. “[This] makes it very difficult for them to make the transition,” the submission adds.

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