New Zealand universities to scrap quality audit body

Kiwi institutions committed to ‘academic audit as a concept’ but look to save costs

June 26, 2024
Source: THE

New Zealand’s universities have decided to close the organisation that runs their internal quality audits, blaming “very challenging financial headwinds”.

Universities New Zealand (UNZ) will wind up the Academic Quality Agency (AQA) after it completes its current sixth round of audits at the end of 2024.

AQA originated 30 years ago as a unit of UNZ, then known as the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. Since 2013, it has operated as an independent subsidiary housed at UNZ’s Wellington headquarters.

Chair Cheryl de la Rey said UNZ remained “committed to academic audit as a concept” but wanted to find ways to reduce its complexity and expense.

“The cost of our current model of academic audit is substantial once we factor in the cost of AQA as an organisation and the [expenses] incurred by universities in preparing self-review portfolios and in follow-up reporting,” she said.

New Zealand’s universities are struggling financially amid soaring costs, flat or declining government funding, the wind-up of research funding initiatives and depressed international earnings because of the country’s sustained Covid border closures. Five of its eight institutions reported deficits last year.

Professor de la Rey said vice-chancellors had taken primary responsibility for quality assurance ever since the 1870 creation of the University of New Zealand, the antecedent of today’s universities of Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington. She said audits helped universities monitor their own practices while giving the broader community an “independent validation” of institutional quality.

University bosses have resolved “in-principle” to roll out a seventh cycle of audits, she said, while acknowledging that “there is not yet any decision as to what this will look like”.

“Vice-chancellors accept that there will be some additional risk associated with moving to a different model of quality assurance,” she said. “[We] intend that these risks will be appropriately managed at the time new arrangements are defined.”

The decision mirrors developments more than a dozen years ago on the other side of the Tasman Sea, where periodic audits conducted for more than a decade by the Australian Universities Quality Agency (Auqa) were designed to help institutions improve their performance.

Auditing by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which replaced Auqa in 2011, is primarily aimed at ensuring universities’ compliance with legislated standards rather than providing opportunities for self-reflection and enhancement.

Professor de la Rey said that while vice-chancellors had not yet done “detailed thinking” about the next round of audits, they had decided to maintain current cyclical timeframes for institutional reviews while combining some aspects of the audit processes.

AQA’s replacement body will have a “distinct brand” but not permanent staffing. UNZ employees will be deputised to provide secretariat and administrative support, so long as that does not undermine the audits’ independence.

Professor de la Rey said the impending retirement of AQA’s executive director, Sheelagh Matear, had “partially contributed” to the decision to wind up the body.

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