Teaching-only universities could make comeback in Australia

Australian minister’s call for specialisation fosters speculation that rejected idea could be resurrected

June 15, 2021
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Australia could be set for an influx of teaching-only universities, just two years after a federally commissioned review all but ruled the idea out.

Former University of Canberra vice-chancellor Stephen Parker said that private education providers could become de facto teaching-only universities under the guise of “university colleges”, using standards legislated just four months ago.

Education minister Alan Tudge appeared to reopen the debate about teaching-only universities during his address to the Universities Australia conference in Canberra. “We…need to start a conversation about how we support greater differentiation and specialisation in the university sector,” Mr Tudge said.

“We have 39 comprehensive universities, which may not be the optimal model today for quality of teaching or research in this country. We should start that conversation as to how we can think through this together.”

Mr Tudge’s office declined to elaborate on the remarks. But teaching-only universities were widely debated during the 2019 review of provider category standards, with scores of submissions opposing the removal of universities’ obligations to conduct research – a position ultimately adopted by the reviewer, Peter Coaldrake.

New rules based on his recommendations require universities to undertake world-standard research and deliver doctoral degrees in at least half of the broad fields of education in which they teach. But there are no research obligations on institutions registered in the new “university college” category.

Professor Coaldrake, who now oversees the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, told a recent conference that the regulator was processing “quite a number” of applications for university college status, with decisions due by July.

He said that he expected the new category to be populated by “very high-performing, mature providers, some of which might one day want to be universities. But some…might never want to be a university. [They might cater to] a very strong market, or industry or employment niche.”

Professor Parker, an adviser with consultancies KPMG Australia and the Higher Education and Research Group, said that the decision not to allow teaching-only universities was “regrettable”. He said that if university colleges were granted teaching subsidies they could “take a good market share” from established universities.

“The university sector might regret the day it opposed teaching-only universities,” he said. “If you give university colleges access to commonwealth-supported places, you are going down the road of encouraging specialisation but you’re potentially leaving some universities in a really difficult position.

“They’re sitting there with big campuses that students basically don’t come to any more. You’ve got public universities with a big cost base, competing with more nimble private providers set up on a different business model.”

La Trobe University vice-chancellor and Universities Australia chair John Dewar told a Committee for Economic Development of Australia forum in May that Australian universities were “very samey” because “we are all funded to do the same thing”.

Professor Dewar said that all universities in Australia awarded PhDs, unlike in the US, where the figure was about 25 per cent. “The effect of this is profound. Do we all need to be trying to do the same thing? Or should we be encouraged and supported to play to our strengths?” he asked.

He said this would be possible if research were fully funded and “all incentives to cross-subsidise” were removed from universities’ funding settings.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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