Canberra overhauls assessments

November 3, 1995

Australia is expected to replace its system of quality assurance in higher education with annual reviews of universities that focus on a single issue.

After three rounds in which a federal committee has conducted a yearly investigation of several areas of university operations, the government is looking at alternatives that would be cheaper and impose fewer demands on institutions.

Education minister Simon Crean has asked for advice from his committee on quality assurance, his department and the Higher Education Council on the future of the quality assessment programme. A number of individual vice chancellors have already made submissions.

Brian Wilson, chairman of the quality committee, said the current method of reviewing different topics at the same time placed too much strain on universities. The committee felt a more focused annual review would be better, with an overall examination of university performance carried out every three years.

Similarly, instead of a committee of "amateur all-rounders" as was the case at present, teams expert in a particular field could be employed to carry out annual reviews.

These could assess student services, libraries or the overseas student programme, so the whole university "was not turning itself inside out trying to find good things to say", Professor Wilson said.

In Australia, quality outcomes are a result of self-assessment. Institutions are judged on how well they have performed against standards set down by themselves.

It is now clear, however, that just making the attempt has generated considerable change in a way not possible by simply giving needy universities more money.

"There has been enormous change in the institutions," Professor Wilson said. "Reformers who found it very difficult to cope with institutional inertia have been given support to do things that were too hard to do before."

The key, according to Professor Wilson, has been the Aus$70 million (Pounds 35 million) or so the government has allocated to the project each year.

With every university running its finances on a knife-edge, having a few million dollars extra, or even just a few thousand, can generate an operational flexibility not otherwise possible, Professor Wilson said.

"Universities are scared stiff the quality money will disappear but while the total sum is likely to be reduced, there should still be enough to make the process of interest to all institutions," he said.

"The issue of assessing the quality of universities is a worldwide phenomenon and I don't see any relaxation at the Commonwealth level in keeping them on their toes."

Apart from a cash injection worth more than Aus$6 million to the big universities, status has also proved to be a potent factor in the quality programme. After the first round, when universities were grouped in six bands, enormous controversy erupted over which institutions missed out on being placed in the top group.

Suddenly, where a university was on the ladder counted for a great deal. And it was not just parochial prestige, either. Inter-national reputations were at stake, not to mention the prospect of overseas students taking their fees elsewhere.

"When we started out, money was the big incentive," Professor Wilson said. "But after the first report, some institutions would have been quite happy to give the money up if they could have got into group one."

As a result of this year's survey of research performance and community interaction, it was likely institutions would be allocated to different bands according to different classifications, Professor Wilson said.

"This should provide an opportunity for institutions that do not have a great research record, but which have really got their act together," he added.

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