Learn from Australia’s ‘regulation traumas’, England urged

Former head of Australian university watchdog says early criticism helped shape more collaborative approach

June 8, 2023
Source: iStock

England’s continued soul-searching over the shape and extent of higher education regulation can be aided by looking to Australia, according to the former head of the country’s university watchdog, which was also accused of overreach in its early years.

As the House of Lords finishes its inquiry into the Office for Students (OfS) – and the actions of the regulator continue to be hotly debated by the sector – a report for the Higher Education Policy Institute by Anthony McClaran, now vice-chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, backs the need for statutory regulation but says it must not be misused.

“In my time leading the main regulator of the tertiary sector in Australia, I saw how effective good statutory regulation can be,” said Mr McClaran, who ran the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) from 2015 to 2020.

“But it took a few years for Australia to reach its current situation, as there were initially concerns about regulatory burden, excessive bureaucracy and problematic communication – all of which we now hear from some in England.”

Mr McClaran’s report, published on 8 June, highlights how, when he took the role, TEQSA was still reeling from a critical government-commissioned review, with its future in doubt.

Kwong Lee Dow, former vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, and Valerie Braithwaite, emeritus professor of regulatory studies at the Australian National University, had found Teqsa was perpetuating regulatory burden and a “one size fits all approach” as a result of its complex framework, unclear messaging and poor relationship with the sector.

While in post, Mr McClaran oversaw the implementation of the review’s recommendations including moves to adopt a “genuine” risk-based approach, simplifying data requests and adapting the regulatory framework so it better suited different kinds of providers.

“The lessons from Australia include the importance of a risk-based approach, sensible rather than overblown data requests and treating providers as partners rather than merely objects,” said Mr McClaran, who is also a former chief executive of the UK's Quality Assurance Agency and admissions service Ucas.

Mr McClaran writes in the report that, when done well, statutory regulation brings several “clear potential advantages”: clarity; a sanctions regime; recognition of the public purpose of institutions; accountability to democratic authorities; and protection for students and others.

As the OfS considers its next steps five years on from its inception, he writes that several lessons can be learned from Australia's “early and somewhat traumatic” history of statutory regulation. 

These include the importance of a regulator securing independence through checks and balances, encouraging rigorous challenge of regulatory judgment and recognising the role that a regulator can play in delivering sector-wide responses to the “great thematic challenges” of the day.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said English and Australian higher education systems share much in common but the Australian system is often “one step ahead”.

“This clear report shows the two countries are also tracking each other when it comes to regulation,” Mr Hillman said.

“The main Australian regulator, Teqsa, was regularly accused of overstretching itself in its first few years – just as England’s Office for Students is often accused of the same. But the situation Down Under has abated and the Australian experience might therefore offer some useful lessons.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

The ‘teenage’ regulator has a toxic relationship with universities owing to its uncompromising approach and its alleged unwillingness to listen – except to Conservative ministers. But should vice-chancellors agitating against the OfS be careful what they wish for? John Morgan reports 

Reader's comments (1)

The biggest concern in the UK is that the OfS are scared of the Tories, the nasty party that runs the country. Was that the same in Australia when the Coalition were in power?