Shorter registration for troubled Murdoch University

Australian regulator allows Perth institution to address its problems behind closed doors

July 8, 2021
hourglass and calendar, illustrating delays in decisions over research funding grants
Source: iStock

Murdoch University’s operating licence has been renewed for four years rather than the customary seven after an investigation found the institution was struggling to meet mandatory registration standards.

But Australia’s higher education regulator has not punished the Perth university, instead allowing it to address its shortcomings through a confidential “voluntary undertaking”.

In a statement announcing the long-awaited outcomes of Murdoch’s re-registration audit, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) highlighted “risks” involving the university’s governance, academic oversight and quality assurance.

The regulator expressed reservations over the governing body’s management of “material risks identified in its operations” and the academic council’s handling of “teaching and learning quality”. The statement also casts doubt over Murdoch’s efforts to improve its courses, including its “systematic benchmarking of student performance data”.

The voluntary undertaking provides a “suitable framework…to demonstrate ongoing improvements”, the statement insists. It says Murdoch has commissioned reviews to help it avoid “future non-compliance”, reflecting “a positive commitment to continuous improvement”.

Vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen said the re-registration was an “important decision” confirming Murdoch’s status as a university.

“This ensures we continue in our goal of striving to provide the best teaching, learning and research outcomes, and continue our proud history of providing inclusive education to all who can benefit, irrespective of social standing and background,” she said.

“Our voluntary undertakings set out the actions we will be taking to address the identified risks and allow us to demonstrate ongoing improvements to our corporate and academic governance arrangements and external benchmarking of student performance across courses.”

Murdoch attracted scrutiny after a May 2019 broadcast of ABC TV’s Four Corners current affairs programme aired criticisms of its international student admissions. The university has been investigated three times by Teqsa in the two years since, and the Department of Home Affairs temporarily increased its immigration risk rating.

The scant detail released about the circumstances of its new registration, which has been due for a year, suggests Teqsa is adopting a less conspicuous approach to universities’ compliance issues under recently appointed chief commissioner Peter Coaldrake and chief executive Alistair Maclean.

Teqsa’s treatment of the University of Tasmania, which also attracted criticism on Four Corners, was less forbearing. When the regulator renewed Tasmania’s registration in late 2019, it released detailed information about regulatory conditions requiring the university to overhaul its policies and monitor and improve its students’ performance.

Teqsa also published details of six conditions it had placed on the registration of Charles Sturt University earlier that year, including a temporarily enforced ban on new enrolments at three capital city campuses.

By contrast, Teqsa offered little detail about its investigation of Murdoch’s international student admissions and English-language proficiency requirements following the Four Corners broadcast.

Last October, Teqsa concluded that Murdoch’s “inconsistent application of its own admissions practices” had resulted in the admission of “ill equipped” international students, but the university had “responded appropriately in addressing these issues”. The investigators did not talk to Murdoch whistleblowers and the report was kept secret.

In December, Teqsa released a one-paragraph statement summarising conditions placed on Murdoch’s CRICOS (Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students) registration, which allows it to admit foreign students.

The university was required to provide regular updates on the students’ English-language proficiency and academic preparedness, its management of education agents, and its student visa requirements so that the regulator could monitor “recently introduced changes”.

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