The traditional freedom of Australian universities to design their own courses is becoming limited because of the growing influence of professional associations.
Gordon Stanley, head of the federal Higher Education Council, says some universities now have to negotiate with up to 80 outside organisations - all of which want a say in the undergraduate and postgraduate curriculum.
Academics were finding it difficult to be innovative with curriculum restricted by outside bodies. Following growing concern among vice chancellors, deans and department heads, the council has initiated an inquiry into the relationship between professional associations and universities.
The investigation will consider the nature and extent of their involvement in the design and content of curricula, and the impact on course requirements. "Pressure from professional associations makes it difficult for universities to produce a course that might deliver professional competency over a shorter period of time," said Professor Stanley. "Sometimes, the associations argue that they want a four-year course because everyone else has one."
A review he conducted into fee-paying arrangements for postgraduate courses last year had revealed issues relating to professional entry, including professional associations' desire for higher levels of credentials.
But lengthening courses or changes in the balance between publicly-funded places and user-pays courses has a significant financial impact on higher education funding, he said As part of the council investigation, a consultant has been hired to examine 12 professions for which higher education is an entry-level prerequisite. The consultant will compile qualitative and quantitative data on the impact professional associations have on university courses and report on the changes which have occurred in entry requirements since 1988.
Professor Stanley said members of the council would visit institutions across Australia for talks with staff and students.
He hoped the inquiry would produce examples of good practice that might be useful to universities and associations.