The Australian government has been so preoccupied with cutting higher education spending to help pay for multibillion-dollar corporate tax cuts that it has appeared to have no other policy towards universities. However, having only partly achieved that aim, education minister Simon Birmingham recently stated several other policy goals in his brief to the Higher Education Standards Panel.
The panel only has one statutory function: to advise on the standards against which institutions and their qualifications are accredited. But, in the absence of a buffer body, the minister seems to be using it as a tightly leashed advisory council.
Three of the minister’s goals for the panel, whose membership largely consists of senior academics, including vice-chancellors, relate to improving and reducing regulation. Of the four more substantive goals, assessing the effectiveness of the regulation of overseas campuses recognises that offshoots of Australian universities are a significant continuing activity with distinct issues for quality assurance.
The government and regulators have been concerned with ensuring that the same minimum standards apply onshore and offshore, but implementation has been clumsy at times. And there are occasions when offshore students would have been better served had institutions been granted the flexibility to adapt programmes to local conditions. Perhaps authorities may now accept that different standards may apply offshore without necessarily being lower.
Credit transfer, another panel priority, is a perennial issue for students and politicians, but universities struggle to meet expectations. Policies and decisions are being increasingly systematised, which at least makes them more consistent and easier to administer. But universities need to invest more effort to codify, explain and justify them to students’ satisfaction.
The two remaining issues on the Standard Panel’s to-do list may be related but will be considered separately by the different bodies primarily responsible for them. The main one is to oversee a review of provider category standards – the principal issue being whether to recognise teaching-only universities. Australia is not alone in insisting that universities conduct research – New Zealand and some Canadian provinces also do so – but European countries and many US states do not.
Private providers and some technical and further education institutes want university designation in the hope of boosting their recruitment of students, particularly international ones. This is opposed by most universities, no doubt partly to limit competition but also out of a genuine desire to preserve universities’ consistently high reputation, to which they understand research to be essentially.
Research-intensives claim that the absence of teaching-only universities reflects a damaging lack of institutional diversity while arguing that the significant differences in universities’ research intensity justifies further concentrating research in their own coffers. Existing universities are also diverse in other ways, including the fields in which they concentrate their research: they are hardly as uniform as is sometimes asserted. One possibility would be to reduce but not eliminate the requirement to conduct research. Another would be to introduce a new category of universities, as British Columbia did in 2008, when it redesignated five former colleges as teaching universities.
The other big issue that the standards panel is being asked to advise upon is a review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, which specifies standards. Just about every qualification in the framework is contentious, for different reasons. Nonetheless, it remains one of the more effective documents of its kind.
This is at least partly because there are only modest and specific expectations of it. For example, qualifications frameworks are not much use in promoting credit transfer, despite the designs of some jurisdictions. Interestingly, US states and most Canadian provinces see no need for a qualifications framework; their qualifications retain consistency through normative isomorphism, reinforced by quality assurance bodies.
Facing up to these issues will not amount to the grand new vision for higher education sought by some. Still less will they lead to the radical changes to higher education sought by the government in its 2014 budget. But they are all worth addressing, and it is heartening that the government is at last treating higher education as something more than just a cost to the budget and a source of revenue from international students.