A new discussion paper could pave the way for teaching-only universities in Australia, injecting long-demanded diversity into the country’s monochrome higher education sector.
The paper outlines the issues to be examined by the Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards, headed by former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake. The document, released on 6 December, is dominated by discussion about Australia’s conceptualisation of “university”.
While most countries define universities as places that combine teaching with research activity, the paper argues, few are as prescriptive as Australia – which is “somewhat unusual” in demanding that original research be undertaken in at least three broad fields.
The paper cites challenges to the rationale that proximity to research makes for better teaching. For example, an inquiry last year by Australia’s Productivity Commission found “little empirical evidence” for the so-called teaching-research nexus – particularly at the undergraduate level.
Even the influential 2008 Bradley Review of Higher Education, which endorsed requirements for universities to conduct research, acknowledged that “it is difficult to find compelling research evidence which unequivocally supports the argument that graduates with degrees from such institutions are demonstrably better than those from teaching-only institutions”.
Such observations spawn questions over whether the definition should be changed, the paper argues. “Should the requirement for universities to offer both undergraduate and postgraduate courses be relaxed, allowing freedom for a university to specialise in only undergraduate or only postgraduate courses, with or without research?
“Should specialised research institutes with a proven record become eligible to use the ‘university’ title and even offer postgraduate research-based qualifications?”
The paper says that such changes would need to be “carefully weighed” against possible reputational impacts. It says that Australia’s strictly defined provider categories act as a “market signal” for quality, safeguarding the sector’s international standing.
But the categories fail to reflect the “real” differentiation of Australian higher education, the paper suggests, with the bulk of the sector – 127 of 170 registered organisations – ensconced in a single category of “higher education provider”, which arguably constitutes seven different types of institution.
The paper argues that this lack of differentiation fosters adherence to “broad minimum requirements” rather than the pursuit of excellence. It asks whether new standalone categories should be introduced for pathway colleges linked to universities, for example, or for non-university providers that deserve unlimited self-accrediting authority.
The paper also suggests that current arrangements could make it too hard for higher education providers to make the grade as universities. Meanwhile, institutions that already hold the title are free to coast, because the current rules do not define the quantity or quality of research required within each broad field to justify “university” status.
“On the narrowest interpretation, a provider could demonstrate the requirements by…undertaking a single research project in each of the three required fields in a given year, and publication of at least one paper from each project in any form, and at any level of quality.
“This scenario may not meet community expectations of what a university should deliver, but it is plausible that a provider so described would satisfy the current requirements.”
The paper proposes five discussions questions, with submissions due in three months. The review panel is scheduled to deliver its final report in the second half of next year, following a federal election expected in May.