Australian regulator ‘overcomplicating’ scholarship

Critics say draft benchmarks for assessment of scholarly activity are overprescriptive, exclusionary and onerous

December 20, 2020
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Australia’s higher education regulator has been accused of overthinking “scholarship”, after proposals to change the way it is assessed were likened to the “Spanish Inquisition”.

discussion paper circulated by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), outlining five “draft principles” to guide how scholarly activity is demonstrated and evaluated, has ignited “surprise and fear” within the sector.

Teqsa says that it is simply reviewing its advice to institutions. “We don’t think there’s a problem here that needs fixing,” policy and analysis director Greg Simmons told a webinar.

He said that some institutions struggled to provide evidence of their scholarly activity, so Teqsa believed consultation was “useful”.

But the forum heard concerns that the proposals were overprescriptive and risked saddling providers with colossal administrative burdens.

Institutions must demonstrate scholarship to meet the “threshold standards” that outline the minimum requirements for registration. This could get harder following last year’s review of provider category standards.

Reviewer Peter Coaldrake recommended new scholarship criteria in standards that distinguish universities and other self-accrediting institutions from less autonomous colleges. Legislation to enforce his recommendations is under consideration by the Senate.

The new rules would require institutions to show that they provide “systematic” support for scholarship, demonstrating not only scholarly activities but also “outcomes” that inform teaching, learning and professional practice.

Teqsa’s discussion paper echoes this language. One of its principles requires providers and their teachers to demonstrate “outputs or outcomes” from their scholarship – course or curriculum changes that spawn measurable improvements in learning.

Scholarly activity in itself is not enough, the paper warns. “Evidence of intended outcomes, accompanied by a means to monitor and evaluate those outcomes, are seen for regulatory purposes as no less necessary to scholarship than the activity itself.”

The paper also says that professional development activities that do not directly contribute to measurable learning outcomes, such as accountancy teachers honing their skills by offering tax services, do not constitute scholarly activity.

Sydney Christian college administrator David Perry said that Teqsa was going too far by making outputs a “defining characteristic” of scholarship. “It amounts to a redefinition, and a significantly narrower definition at that,” said Dr Perry, academic vice-president of Alphacrucis College.

This would rule out “unique” forms of scholarship in professional and creative disciplines. “The outcomes of scholarship can take years to materialise and would be incredibly difficult to demonstrate in the short term,” he added.

Documenting the outputs and outcomes of hundreds or thousands of scholarly activities a year, and demonstrating their influence on curricula, would be a “massive undertaking”.

UNSW Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Merlin Crossley said that the paper over-intellectualised scholarship by adopting the 1990 Boyer “typology”, which prescribes four forms of scholarship: discovery, integration, application and teaching.

Professor Crossley said that the Boyer framework had been developed for a “different purpose”, and a simple definition of scholarship was preferable. “To me, scholarship just means deep learning,” he said. “I think of scholarship almost as nerdiness.”

Mr Simmons said Teqsa was not trying to be prescriptive or exclusionary, but it was right to expect institutions to monitor the effects of their scholarship. “Often providers have designated research or scholarship funds in their budgets, but there is no plan to ensure that those funds are invested wisely,” he said.

Teqsa told Times Higher Education that it would consider the feedback early next year and expected to publish revised guidance by July.

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