Tough treatment not response to favouritism jibes, regulator says

Signals suggest Australia’s regional universities could face a tough task in maintaining registration

April 26, 2019
Source: Alamy

Private Australian colleges’ mounting frustration at bureaucratic delays and a perception that the country’s higher education regulator is hostile to small institutions have coincided with some unfavourable outcomes from universities’ applications to have their registrations renewed.

But the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency has insisted that perceptions that it is “university-centric” have not provoked it to be tougher on universities.

“Independent providers tell us that we need to avoid being overly partial towards universities,” said acting TEQSA chief executive Michael Tomlinson. “So if we encounter risks at a university, we think about what we would do if we had observed those levels of risk at a non-university provider.

“It reminds us of the need to be consistent. But the need to be consistent is there regardless.”

TEQSA imposed a condition on the registration of a university for the first time last year, when it required the University of Southern Queensland to submit regular minutes from its governing bodies’ meetings.

And in a 2016 re-registration assessment, the agency publicly highlighted problems with the University of New England’s “unfavourable and significant” student attrition and success rates.

The comments marked a departure from the agency’s earlier practice of simply outlining whether universities seeking re-registration had met the required standards.

Dr Tomlinson acknowledged a change in TEQSA’s public commentary, saying it “wanted to give a bit more information about our findings, both favourable and unfavourable”. But last year’s imposition of the first sanction against a university did not represent a “change in approach”, he said.

“We’ve come across some concentrations of risk which we haven’t seen before,” he said, nominating persistently high student attrition as an example. “If we don’t find the provider has a credible strategy for reducing those levels of attrition, that’s the sort of thing we would home in on.

“With organisations as complex as a university, there will always be variations in quality. [Our] particular interest is, to what extent does the university have the capability to self-assure its operations, respond to those variations and bring them back within tolerance limits?”

The sanction against USQ stemmed from TEQSA’s concerns over the quality of courses it delivered through subcontracted providers. The case has parallels with England’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students, which last November issued its first fine – a £66,000 penalty against the University of Hertfordshire – over activities involving a partner college.

The Australian developments suggest that regional universities, some of which are already battling to remain solvent, may now face challenges in maintaining their registration.

Regional universities experience relatively high attrition because they cater to mature students juggling family and work responsibilities. Some use partner providers to teach courses in city branch campuses primarily designed to attract fee-paying overseas students who are unwilling to live in rural areas.

TEQSA has also highlighted academic governance as an area of particular scrutiny. “We regard it as a very important bulwark against risks to academic quality,” Dr Tomlinson said. “We place a lot of reliance on the academic governing bodies to ensure that internal quality assurance is operating effectively, particularly in relation to course quality and student performance.”

TEQSA has now completed a cycle of re-registration assessments for all public universities; the results of the final five are expected by mid-year. With universities typically granted seven-year registrations, eight universities face renewal again next year.

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