Australian regional universities imperilled by city college links

Crucial cash flow in jeopardy as regulator scrutinises bush institutions’ urban partners

May 19, 2019
Source: Getty

Efforts to buttress Australia’s regional universities by ushering cash-rich international students into metropolitan study centres run by partner colleges risk backfiring amid a regulatory clampdown.

Two rurally based universities have been sanctioned by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency over their arm’s-length supervision of city campuses catering to foreign students. With more regional universities facing regulatory scrutiny, the toll could rise.

In April, TEQSA banned Charles Sturt University from accepting new students at Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane centres run by partner Study Group Australia. TEQSA subsequently revoked the ban after being persuaded that CSU had “implemented controls” to safeguard academic integrity and quality at the three centres. But the university has secured registration for only four years instead of the customary seven and must meet a raft of additional requirements.

TEQSA has also imposed conditions on the registration of the University of Southern Queensland, citing concerns over courses taught by “other parties”. Both moves arose after TEQSA signalled that third-party partnerships would come under elevated scrutiny.

Regional universities, already dealing with low economies of scale and modest private sector funding, were especially hard hit by the capping of undergraduate places in late 2017. While their need for compensatory income from foreign tuition fees is particularly acute, most international students gravitate to big cities – forcing regional universities to maintain presences there.

USQ and CSU recorded deficits in 2017, although USQ has since produced a surplus, and both are increasingly reliant on fees from international students. CSU obtained 23 per cent of its revenue from foreign students in 2017, up from 18 per cent in 2016, after its international enrolments more than doubled in three years.

Study Group was deregistered by the vocational education regulator in 2018 for using misleading tactics to recruit unsuitable students to courses with too few trainers. The group said that its higher and vocational education arms had always operated separately and that it had been withdrawing from vocational education when the regulator made its “mistaken” decision.

CSU vice-chancellor Andrew Vann credited the rapid reversal of the ban on new students to work that the university “already had in train” to address TEQSA’s concerns. But he said the agency seemed to be “raising the bar” on some areas of its oversight, and all universities were now expected “to do a much more thoroughly professional job of quality assurance”.

“If, for example, you can’t specifically demonstrate something through the minutes of your academic senate, in their view it’s effectively not being done – even if you can show [elsewhere] that it is being done,” Professor Vann said.

Two more universities, both based in centres considered regional, are awaiting renewal of their registration. One of them, the University of Tasmania, was named in a recent television report alleging that universities were waiving English-language requirements for foreign students.

The other, Charles Darwin University – which recorded a A$19.5 million (£10.5 million) deficit in 2017, and obtained 21 per cent of its higher education arm’s revenue from foreign students – has now parted ways with a partner college that ran its Melbourne study centre in a building shared by two other regional universities.

Vice-chancellor Simon Maddocks said the university had “every confidence” in the quality of its teaching, but added that CSU’s experience suggested that TEQSA was “taking a greater interest” in aspects of institutional governance.

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