Australia’s independent higher education colleges are hamstrung by prolonged regulatory time frames and defined not by who they are, but who they are not, according to frank self-appraisals from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Providers are also hampered by the “loss of Teqsa corporate memory” caused by frequent staff turnover.
Two new reports from the regulator, released in line with government reporting requirements, detail the frustrations faced mainly by the 128 higher education colleges that do not have university status.
“Stakeholders have been concerned about the time taken to make decisions,” the agency concedes in its TEQSA Regulator Performance Framework report. “The time taken from submission to decision [has] deteriorated.”
The other report, which summarises the results of a sector-wide survey, acknowledges a perception that Teqsa is “hostile” to smaller colleges.
“A view exists that Teqsa is university-centric and does not understand the particular situations and offerings of non-public providers,” it says. “Using the term ‘non-university’ is an example.”
Simon Finn, chief executive of newly rebranded representative body Independent Higher Education Australia, said that similar frustration had prompted his organisation’s renaming from the Council of Private Higher Education.
Mr Finn said that terms such as “non-university higher education providers” and “non-university higher education students” were common parlance in the sector, although he credited Teqsa for moving away from that terminology over the past year. “Describing institutions by what they’re not doesn’t reflect what they do,” he said.
“There are three times as many independent providers as there are universities. They enrol 10 per cent of the students. They contribute significantly to the international education market. It’s time for people to recognise that this is one part of the sector, and universities are another.”
Last year, Teqsa reported that it had failed to meet its own target of making and communicating its decisions in a “timely manner”. Decisions had taken an average of 290 days, down from 303 days the previous year but up from 202 days the year before that.
Mr Finn said that colleges’ frustration with the “significant blowout in the time frames” had been exacerbated by frequent changes to case managers. He said that he had not seen any improvement since then, but hoped that a staff recruitment drive – bankrolled by extra funding in last year’s federal budget – would ease the problems.
Teqsa chief executive Anthony McClaran said that the newly released reports would help the agency to ensure that the sector was “not impeded by unnecessary or inefficient regulation”.
“Teqsa’s stakeholders have told the agency that while they value our guidance, we need to address the time taken to reach certain regulatory decisions. We’re acting on this feedback,” he said.
The survey revealed that stakeholders appreciated Teqsa’s guidance and support materials, and particularly its annual conference. But they marked the agency down on its efforts to coordinate regulatory visits, streamline its activities and ensure that they were proportionate.
Individual colleges proved much more scathing than their representative bodies, awarding the agency just over 50 per cent on these aspects and 70 per cent on its overall performance – compared with full marks from the peak, professional and student bodies that responded to the survey.
Mr Finn said that this was “counter-intuitive”, with representative bodies normally inclined to give far more “robust” feedback than regulated providers. “Rightly or wrongly, they’d be apprehensive about being too critical.”