Reviewer says no to teaching-only universities in Australia

But Australian assessor says most growth will be outside universities, and opens door to new category of institution

August 28, 2019
Peter Coaldrake
Peter Coaldrake

A landmark Australian inquiry will reject a controversial proposal that teaching-only institutions be permitted to call themselves universities.

However, the Review of Provider Category Standards will urge the government to jettison several underutilised university classifications and establish a new hierarchy of non-university providers.

Review head Peter Coaldrake told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit that he wanted the six current provider categories pruned to four, with universities able to distinguish themselves only as Australian or overseas institutions.

The other two categories would be allocated to non-universities, which are currently crammed into the catch-all grouping of “higher education provider”. Professor Coaldrake said one classification would be quarantined for “top-performing, specialised, mature” providers, with self-accrediting status a likely determinant.

He said the removal of categories would not undermine variety in the sector, given that three current classifications – Australian university college, Australian university of specialisation and overseas university of specialisation – shared just one occupant.

“I don’t see a relationship between diversity in the system and the number of categories,” said Professor Coaldrake, a former vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology.

Much speculation has centred on whether the review would recommend that the government allow teaching-only universities. Advocates point to a paucity of evidence for the maxim that direct involvement in research boosts teaching quality.

They say the opposite applies because non-researching academics have more time for their students.

But Professor Coaldrake said that, while teaching-only universities had generated “a bit of noise”, they did not gel with most people’s conceptualisation of university status. “With a few significant exceptions, the term is associated with institutions that pursue high-level teaching and research, and that is the position I prefer,” he said.

“Australia has strong cachet attached to the university label. There is an understanding of what a university is, what a university does and the level at which a university performs. Let’s build on that [and] think about [how] other categories of institutions can be elevated.”

He said that he had “listened carefully” to complaints about the competitive disadvantages suffered by non-universities. But he insisted that his recommendations were not anti-competitive, and speculated that future universities might decide that they were better off leaving the category.

Professor Coaldrake said that his report, which is due in the second half of this year, was all but written. The main unresolved issue was what to call the two non-university categories, given the “negative associations” of the higher education provider classification. “To many people the term ‘provider’ is a generic and weak label,” he said.

He said that one of the rationales for introducing a new non-university classification was to create an “aspirational” category. “It may require some political courage and sustained support to bring people behind that grouping,” he told the conference. “Nomenclature is going to be a very sensitive issue.”

Professor Coaldrake said his goal was to ensure that provider categories remained fit for purpose in a “changing landscape” characterised by “much more fluidity and blurring of boundaries”.

“A fair bit of the growth in student numbers in the years ahead will not be occurring inside universities but in the broader higher education space,” he added.

The current arrangements were like “a single verse song sheet” where most would-be students only considered universities. “Let’s have more verses in the higher education song sheet than simply the university verse,” he said.

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