Watchdog won’t bite you, Australia’s elite universities assured

A chief architect of the regulatory reform proposed to guarantee the quality of higher education in Australia has assured the heads of the country’s elite universities that they will not be buried in red tape.

November 20, 2010

Denise Bradley, who led the landmark Review of Australian Higher Education in 2008, said that she understood the concerns being raised about the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), but insisted that the body is necessary.

The former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, who is interim chair of the new body her own review recommended, said it is “perfectly reasonable” that concerns about bureaucracy are being raised.

But in an interview with Times Higher Education, she said that Teqsa, which will bring together the currently separate strands of regio¬nal and national quality assurance of the academy, will focus on “at-risk” providers.

Scheduled to be launched next year, Teqsa’s primary task will be to ensure that students receive a high-quality education.

But it has come under fierce criticism from the Group of Eight (Go8), an organisation that represents the country’s elite institutions, which claims that the approach “involves a degree of central regulation and intrusion…which is unprecedented in Australia”.

In a recent background briefing, it states that Teqsa has a “basic flaw” in its design as there is effectively no separation of powers between the “setting, monitoring and judging” of standards.

A release accompanying the briefing says that the federal government’s overall regulatory approach will be “counterproductive because it will stifle diversity, erode quality and reduce the flexibility necessary to respond to unexpected needs and challenges”, and calls for a rethink.

Prior to Australia’s recent federal election – which ultimately delivered a minority Labor Administration – the country’s opposition, the Coalition, had mooted that the Go8 could be excluded from Teqsa to free its members from red tape.

However, Professor Bradley said it is vital that all institutions are covered if current loopholes are to be closed. She added that Teqsa needed “teeth”, as the key problem with the current national regulator – the Australian Universities Quality Agency – is its lack of power.

Among the sanctions proposed for Teqsa are fines and the ability to deregister providers and programmes. In extreme cases, it may even recommend to federal ministers that a failing institution be stripped of its university title.

However, Professor Bradley insisted that it is “very unlikely” that the final sanction would be imposed. She assured institutions such as those in the Go8 that if key indi¬cators show their quality is high, they would inevitably be subject to lighter-touch oversight.

“Obviously a risk-based approach is a sensible one and that’s what we’ll take,” she said. “Everybody’s covered but if you’ve had a good previous report and the monitoring information that we have suggests that there are no questions…I think we’ll be much less interested in you.

“My view would be that the new authority will be all over institutions that appear to be a risk – I think they can expect a great deal more attention than they’re getting in the current arrangements.”

She added: “It is perfectly reasonable for people, when you are introducing a new regulator, to be really interested or concerned about whether or not there is going to be more bureaucracy and red tape and not enough attention being paid to quality.

“Our aim would be to bring in a set of regulatory arrangements that have an emphasis on getting a good outcome as economically as you can. As a former vice-chancellor, I am very aware of how much time this kind of stuff can take for very little reward.”

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