Research-shy institutions ‘could lose university status’

Australian reviewer suggests quality and scale of scholarly output should be key factor in deciding classification

September 2, 2019
Source: Getty

Universities could lose their title if they fail to produce research of sufficient volume or quality, under likely proposals from an Australian review panel.

Former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake said quality and scale of research should be included in the “provider category standards” that define the requirements of university status.

For example, universities might be required to demonstrate that their research is at or above world standard in at least three broad fields of education. This would necessitate scores of 3, 4 or 5 in the Excellence in Research for Australia assessment.

Professor Coaldrake, who is leading a review of the standards, outlined his intended recommendations at a Brisbane conference. “I’m not trying to run a sinister agenda,” he said. “We are trying to…encourage improvement and growth in research performance.”

The standards oblige universities to provide postgraduate research degrees in at least three broad fields, without specifying the quantity or quality of research required in each field. Professor Coaldrake has pointed out that a university could satisfy these standards by offering just one postgraduate course and producing a single uncited research paper in each of the three broad fields.

He said that while most universities would easily meet the sorts of requirements he had in mind, his panel wanted to “build aspiration on the upside rather than the downside”.

The Melbourne-based University of Divinity, which has achieved scores of 3 in each of ERA’s four rounds, said universities already felt pressure to perform on research quality. “If we got a 2 on ERA, I’m sure TEQSA [the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the higher education regulator] would be giving me a phone call and saying ‘what are you doing about it?’,” said vice-chancellor Peter Sherlock.

Professor Sherlock said a quantifiable standard around universities’ research obligations would provide welcome clarity, but would also raise a “really interesting legislative question”. He said Divinity’s university title was recorded in federal and state legislation as well as TEQSA’s national register. “Who actually is making the decision here?”

His institution is also potentially threatened by another likely recommendation of the review, which wants three current Australian university categories dissolved into one. This would entail the removal of the “university of specialisation” classification, of which Divinity is the only member.

It does not meet the current requirements for full university status, because it operates in only one broad field of education. Professor Sherlock said he was “reasonably confident” that the rules would be changed to accommodate his institution.

Avondale College, a 120-year-old institution operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, faces a similar dilemma. It recently secured approval to become the first Australian university college – a category Professor Coaldrake also wants removed.

Avondale president Ray Roennfeldt said he understood Professor Coaldrake would push for institutions in either category to be granted full university status. “But that recommendation would have to be accepted by the Higher Education Standards Panel and the minister,” he said.

Representative body Independent Higher Education Australia said the university college classification should be retained as a desirable “destination” category. “It’s valuable for global recognition and to meet policy issues of government from time to time,” said chief executive Simon Finn.

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