Review recommends ‘institutes of higher education’ for Australia

New category would give top colleges bragging rights and a platform to upgrade to university status

October 15, 2019
name, name tag, identity
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Non-university higher education colleges in Australia are set to inherit a title they can live with following the release of a pivotal government-commissioned review.

A hundred or more private and independent colleges would be reclassified as “institutes of higher education” under recommendations from the review of provider category standards led by former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake.

The best-performing independent colleges would be branded “national institutes of higher education” – a status quarantined for institutions that satisfied extra requirements in areas such as student outcomes and industry engagement, and had won the right to self-accredit at least 70 per cent of their courses.

This special category would give top colleges a means to “elevate their standing and build distinctiveness” as well as providing a platform for progression to full university status.

The proposals are contained in the review panel’s report, released by the federal government on 15 October. Professor Coaldrake had already flagged many of his key recommendations at a conference in Brisbane in August.

But the report addresses the unresolved issue of what to call non-university institutions, which are currently lumped in the catch-all category of “higher education provider” – a nondescript tag that fails to recognise the diversity of independent colleges, operators complain.

Professor Coaldrake said that by creating a new category reserved for the highest-performing non-university providers, the government would foster innovation and aspiration. “This will enable opportunities to build the cachet of all higher education providers across the sector and support their aspirations and growth, especially providers that are not universities,” he said.

The government has pledged to “consider the recommendations and respond in due course”. As previously reported, the review all but quashes any prospect of teaching-only universities by insisting that research activity be retained as a “defining feature” of the university title.

The report also recommends a rationalisation of provider categories, with the five current types of universities to be reduced to two.

Education minister Dan Tehan said higher education standards and regulations needed to keep pace with the evolving sector. “This report has recommended clear definitions of what a university does, as well as minimum benchmarks for research activities,” he said.

As previously flagged, the review recommends the abolition of the “university college” category – a classification devoid of providers when Professor Coaldrake undertook his review. The rules for attaining university college status are so onerous that it has widely been considered unachievable.

The report says the new category of top non-university colleges would do a better job of allowing institutions to “differentiate themselves” while “having the option to transition to university status at their own pace”.

Ironically, on the same day that Professor Coaldrake flagged his recommendation to jettison the university college category, a church-run institution called Avondale College won approval as Australia’s first university college. The report recommends “appropriate transition arrangements” to ensure that Avondale is not disadvantaged by the category’s removal.

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