Australia backs status change to broaden scope for foreign ventures

July 21, 2006

Australia could see an influx of new universities after a dramatic decision by state and federal education ministers last week.

Ministers have agreed to change the rules that determine whether an institution can use the title "university". As well as allowing specialist institutions to do so, the new rules make it simpler for overseas higher education institutions to operate in Australia.

Previously, an institution could be designated a university only if, among other criteria, it demonstrated "a culture of sustained scholarship (that) informs teaching and learning across a range of fields". The new rules change this to "fields in which courses are offered".

Australian law prohibits an organisation operating as a higher education institution without approval, and institutions seeking the university title must conform to the protocols and be assessed by an expert panel.

Julie Bishop, federal Education Minister, said the change could lead to the establishment of a Sydney University of Performing Arts or a Western Australian University of Minerals and Resources.

"This change will provide significant additional diversity and choice within Australia's higher education sector," she said. She added that some of the finest institutions overseas were specialised, citing Rockefeller University of biomedical sciences in New York. "Institutions offering high-quality specialist education services would be welcome," Ms Bishop said.

The new protocols specify that a specialist university has to include its speciality in its title. A "Melbourne University of Agriculture" would not be permitted to use the shortened title of university in advertising or documents.

Institutions seeking university status may have to find a university prepared to sponsor them initially, but they will be allowed to call themselves a university college until they meet the criteria.

Ms Bishop said specialist universities were likely to be set up by private organisations that wanted to attract fee-paying students.

At least six foreign universities are expected to have bases in Australia by early next year and more are likely to follow after last week's decision.

Cranfield University is expected to offer short courses in 2007 with the University of South Australia; Heriot-Watt University has signed an agreement with Tribeca Learning, a financial services education group, to offer online MBA degrees in Australia through its Edinburgh Business School.

Two Chinese universities have opened research and study centres. Peking University is setting up a research centre it will run at Brisbane's Griffith University, while Zhejiang University has joined with the University of Western Australia to operate a Confucius Institute in Perth.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee gave broad approval to the new protocols, saying they should demonstrate that mechanisms were in place to ensure that only high-quality institutions could offer degrees.

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