University colleges to live on in Australia

Government retains title for top independent colleges, while accepting all other recommendations of provider category review

December 10, 2019
Dan Tehan, Australian minister for education and training

Australia’s government has rejected a recommendation that it jettison “university colleges” from the lexicon of higher education providers, instead reserving the term for the best independent colleges.

Education minister Dan Tehan has accepted all 10 recommendations from the review of Australia’s higher education provider category standards, including the proposal to create a new category for top performing non-university providers.

But Mr Tehan declined the suggestion from the review panel, headed by former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake, that the new category be branded “national institutes of higher education”.

“In response to stakeholder feedback, the new category will be called ‘university colleges’ to reflect international standards,” Mr Tehan said.

“These changes will support the innovation, aspiration and quality the sector needs to keep producing high-quality graduates and world-class research.”

Representative body Independent Higher Education Australia said it was “delighted” with the decision. “‘University college’ is an internationally recognised term,” said chief executive Simon Finn.  

“It provides differentiation between a higher education provider and an Australian university, but still retains significant status, requiring a commitment to quality assurance and cycles of review. It’s a very good outcome for the sector.”

The decision continues the rollercoaster ride the university college title has experienced in recent months. Many submissions to the review said the category was superfluous and should be scrapped.

Others insisted that it served as an important pathway to full university status, and said that the requirements for meeting university college registration should instead be relaxed.

At a Brisbane conference in August, Professor Coaldrake said he would recommend the category’s abolition on the grounds that no provider had successfully achieved university college status since the category’s creation in 2011.

That same day, Australia’s higher education regulator approved church-owned Avondale College’s application to become the country’s first university college approved under the current regulatory regime.

Professor Coaldrake’s report recommended a rationalisation of provider categories, with the five current types of universities reduced to two. It said the catch-all category for independent colleges, “higher education provider”, should be split into two to provide a distinct classification recognising superior performance.

The report also said research should remain a defining feature of Australian universities. It said universities should be obliged to meet threshold benchmarks of research quality and quantity, and that the quality benchmark should be “augmented over time”.

This could force private institutions renowned for their teaching, such as Queensland’s Bond University and the multi-state University of Notre Dame Australia, to expand their research efforts or risk forfeiting the university title.

Mr Tehan said he had asked the Higher Education Standards Panel “to provide advice on the amendments required to the provider category standards to implement these recommendations, including the new research benchmarks for universities”.

“We’ll continue to consult closely with the sector and the regulators to ensure a smooth transition to the new standards,” he said.

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