Teqsa to consult on timing of research quality baselines

Australian reviewer who proposed benchmarks before the crisis must now decide how and when to apply them

February 22, 2021
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The reviewer who recommended minimum research requirements for Australian universities, and will soon supervise their drafting, must decide whether a timeline he proposed before the pandemic should apply in its aftermath.

Legislation that passed the federal parliament on 18 February has amended the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) Act to give effect to recommendations from the review of provider category standards, which was headed by former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake.

One of his key proposals was for threshold research quality requirements to be imposed on universities. By 2030, he said, universities must be able to demonstrate research at or above world standard in at least three or 50 per cent of the broad fields of education they deliver. In the interim, a lower 30 per cent benchmark should apply.

But key details – including when the 30 per cent requirement commences, when it rises to 50 per cent and exactly how “world standard” is measured, particularly for research in niche Australian-specific fields – have not been enshrined in the Teqsa Act.

Rather, such questions have been left to Teqsa, where Professor Coaldrake takes over as chief commissioner at the beginning of March.

He must now decide whether to stick to his recommended timetable after Covid-19 undermined universities’ ability to bankroll their research through revenue from international students.

Analyses conducted when Professor Coaldrake released his final report, in late 2019, suggested that eight public and private universities would struggle to reach the 50 per cent threshold.

Since then, the pandemic has severely constrained a major source of university research finance. A A$1 billion (£562 million) research funding lifeline provided in last October’s federal budget has not been enough to replace the sector’s estimated A$3 billion losses.

Tertiary education consultant Claire Field, a former regulator, said that Teqsa should modify its demands in light of the pandemic. “Universities still need to be preparing for these kinds of benchmarks to be introduced, and they need to be thinking about the quality of their research,” she said. “But from a regulatory perspective, given what the sector is going through, to delay [the benchmarks’] introduction – or perhaps introduce them at a slightly lower level – seems to make sense.”

Teqsa said that it would engage with universities and colleges “over the coming months” to support the transition to the new provider category standards. A spokesman said that the agency would consult the sector about the implementation of the new research benchmarks, including timelines, once the Higher Education Standards Framework had been revised.

Universities battling to meet the benchmarks can invest money to improve their overall research performance, or tactically recruit star researchers – typically from overseas – to boost their research profiles in niche areas.

Alternatively, they can jettison poorly rated research groups so that better performing teams dominate their research profiles, or withdraw from entire fields of teaching where their research ranks badly. With discretionary research funds vanishing, cutting will be a more realistic option than investing.

Meanwhile, Science and Technology Australia has become the latest lobby group to plead for more federal research funding, proposing a “once-in-a-generation seismic investment” as a “defining legacy” for the government.

Chief executive Misha Schubert said that a A$2.4 billion research translation and commercialisation fund would help “secure the science capabilities we need to face the crisis after Covid – and the ones after that”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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