Idea of regulator policing humanities enrolments dismissed

Universities that boost numbers in lucrative courses are unlikely to attract the attention of Australian regulator’s new watchdog

July 5, 2020
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An Australian governance expert has poured cold water on suggestions that the higher education regulator’s new integrity unit will stop universities from exploiting proposed tuition fee changes to maximise their income.

It has been suggested that the new unit of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), announced by education minister Dan Tehan on 24 June, will curb universities’ ability to profit from the government’s proposed fee hikes for law, economics, management and, particularly, humanities courses.

But university governance specialist Hilary Winchester said TEQSA would have neither the legislative authority nor the resources to monitor relatively minor changes in enrolment patterns, if universities increased their intakes of students paying fees of A$14,500 (£8,060) a year.

Professor Winchester said TEQSA already had the power to investigate “big shifts” in enrolment patterns – either increases or decreases – that indicated that the quality of students’ experience or the institutions’ financial viability may be under threat.

But she said the regulator would take little interest in changes with a “greater level of granularity”, unless other issues of concern were involved. “A shift of a few hundred students between fields of study would hardly be a significant risk compared to seismic shifts in the sector such as the loss of thousands of international students,” she said.

Mr Tehan has said that as part of its mandate, the A$10.2 million unit will “investigate substantial shifts in enrolment patterns at universities and consider the implications for educational quality and provider governance”.

Times Higher Education asked whether this would include taking action against providers that substantially changed their enrolment patterns, even if there was no suggestion of an impact on educational quality. Neither Mr Tehan’s office nor TEQSA directly answered the question.

Acting TEQSA chief executive Nick Saunders said the agency’s regulatory authority lay in the provisions of the TEQSA and Education Services for Overseas Students acts. “The unit will support TEQSA’s work in analysing and, where appropriate, taking action to address concerns about compliance with these acts or with their associated subordinate legislation,” he said.

Neither act has undergone any recent change that would amplify the regulator’s power to intervene if universities embraced market changes to maximise their revenue.

And when TEQSA consulted the sector on its risk assessment framework last year, closer scrutiny of providers’ enrolment patterns was not discussed – although “unpredicted or rapid changes” in overall enrolments remain under the regulator’s purview.

The July edition of TEQSA e-News, the regulator’s monthly update to the sector, reports on the integrity unit’s functions but makes no mention of enrolment patterns. It says “an early, major focus” will be acting against commercial contract cheating providers.

“TEQSA will also work collaboratively with government agencies that have primary responsibility for other integrity threats…such as cybersecurity, foreign interference and research integrity,” it adds.

Professor Saunders told THE that the integrity unit would increase TEQSA’s ability to “work collaboratively across the sector to identify and respond to risks”. Mr Tehan said that “for the first time, it will be able to look at issues within the sector and whether the best response is from a regulatory or policy action”.

TEQSA already collaborates and addresses sector-wide issues. It convenes a popular annual conference and has published reports on issues including contract cheating, online learning and sexual assault and harassment.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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