Canberra's watchdog: teething pains or too many teeth?

Australia swapped its higher education quality agency for a body with more powers and a much bigger appetite for detail. A year later, the sector is still eyeing Teqsa warily, reports Paul Jump

November 22, 2012

Credit: AlamySwimming with sharks critics claim that Teqsa has an unreasonable appetite for information

When former University of South Australia vice-chancellor Denise Bradley recommended, in her landmark 2008 report, that Australian higher education move to a demand-driven system, she was equally clear that an independent national regulator was required to ensure that teaching quality did not suffer.

Previously, higher education had officially been regulated by the country’s states and territories. However, government funding gave Canberra a de facto prerogative to police standards - which it did via the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA).

Nevertheless, there was widespread concern over a lack of clarity and consistency in standards. Having accepted Professor Bradley’s report, the Labor government passed legislation in 2011 establishing the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), replacing the AUQA.

Teqsa’s remit, according to the government, would be to “enhance the overall quality of the Australian higher education system” by accrediting and evaluating institutions and programmes, encouraging best practice, and simplifying and harmonising regulatory arrangements.

Unlike the AUQA or the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency, Teqsa assesses each institution not against its own stated standards but against a universal set of more than 100 common “threshold standards”, which relate to both institutions and courses. Teqsa also directly accredits the courses of institutions that lack their own authority to accredit.

In the agency’s first annual report, published on 30 October, Teqsa’s chief commissioner, Carol Nicoll, said that “in time” the agency would also begin to explore “the relative quality of higher education being delivered over and above minimum requirements”.

The threshold standards are largely based on existing “national protocols”, developed by the AUQA in collaboration with the sector. Dr Nicoll said Teqsa’s five commissioners had already developed a “shared understanding” of the standards framework and the regulatory principles by which the agency was to operate. She was confident that the agency’s decision-making would be “consistent, fair and robust”.

But according to Vicki Thomson, executive director of the Australian Technology Network of universities, many in the sector feel that the speed with which Teqsa has been established - regulatory powers were taken up in January - has exacerbated the inevitable teething problems that arise when a new body is created.

Bureaucratic burden ‘unsustainable’

Ms Thomson was concerned about Teqsa’s interpretation of some of the threshold standards, and said “evidence is mounting” that its thirst for information was creating an unreasonable and, in some cases, “unsustainable” administrative burden for universities, which was draining “resources that should be directed to supporting teaching and research, with little in the way of offsetting gains in quality for students and the community”.

She said Teqsa’s approach to managing Australia’s register of courses for overseas students had more than tripled the administrative burden for some institutions, with the agency demanding to be informed of every “material change”, such as the closure of courses or the opening or even relocation of student services.

“Each university should be able to make its own judgements against the threshold standards. Teqsa should not stipulate specific actions that are material for all universities but, in many cases, it is doing so,” she said.

Conor King, executive director of the Innovative Research Universities mission group, suggested that such close monitoring may be attributable to the fact that “as a public regulator Teqsa is very exposed to the expectation that it should know everything - or at least everything that has gone wrong.”

However, Teqsa’s communications manager, Tony Mithen, said the agency had already “significantly reduced” the burden of applying for registration and the accreditation of courses. He said a further lightening of the load was likely as Teqsa, and its relationship with the sector, “matured”.

Streamlining promised for the future

He added that in the near future reporting would be greatly reduced through the streamlining of government reporting requirements.

He said the regulator aimed to be “preventative, proactive and responsive”, with its approach to intervention being informed by a sense of proportion and a “risk framework”, developed in close consultation with the sector, that alerted it to potential problems at both institutional and sector level.

According to Mr King, universities feared that the metrics-driven nature of the framework “allows indicators and data to overwhelm effective judgement about the value of the outcomes being achieved”.

But Mr Mithen said Teqsa took “a high degree of care to interpret the standards in a manner that is sensitive to the particular circumstances of an individual provider and is consistent in approach when considered in the context of all regulatory decisions taken by Teqsa”. A nuanced approach would be facilitated by the assignment of case managers to each institution, he added. But he also noted that “issues of quality may affect any part of the sector”.

According to Mr King, there was a great deal of concern that Teqsa oversight might “stifle” universities’ appetite to pursue experiments in digital delivery for campus-based students. Such fears were further heightened when the agency announced recently that it will bring massive open online courses into its purview if and when they lead to paid-for qualifications.

“‘Today’s quality is yesterday’s innovation’ is how one of my vice-chancellors puts it. So if Teqsa holds back university innovation it undermines future quality,” Mr King said.

Dr Nicoll insisted that Teqsa’s emphasis on meeting the threshold standards, rather than on the means by which that was achieved, would ensure that innovation was promoted because institutions would have an incentive to “develop resilient governance structures capable of adapting to changing needs and circumstances in the pursuit of quality outcomes”.

But Mr King said there remained a risk that universities “treat Teqsa as knowing everything and, hence, do as they think Teqsa wants or suggests. We need to ensure a constructive but robust interaction where universities do what they think is best, with Teqsa challenging but not dominating.”

Guinea pigs await their review

As well as undertaking reviews where it has concerns, Teqsa will carry out standard reviews prior to re-registering each institution at least every seven years. Among the first batch of 10 institutions to be assessed - selected on the basis of how long ago they had their last AUQA audit - is Murdoch University.

Bev Thiele, pro vice-chancellor for quality and standards at Murdoch, said the workload involved had not been significantly different from that required for AUQA audits.

Nor did she have any complaints about the agency’s responsiveness to universities’ concerns.

But she said there was a vast philosophical difference between audits and Teqsa regulation because, while “displeasing” the AUQA only led to “reputational damage at worst”, Teqsa has a range of powers up to and including de-registration and the imposition of civil penalties.

“Ultimately, if a university disagreed with the judgement of its AUQA audit panel, it could bury it. If it disagrees with the judgement of Teqsa, it will be heading through a formal appeal process to court,” she said.

She said it was useful for Teqsa to have 10 “guinea pigs” go through re-registration before it rewrote the threshold standards, as it is required to do by the end of the year.

“It will help sharpen the focus on both what needs to be regulated and what can be regulated,” she said.

But the problem was that neither the universities nor Teqsa would have a feel for where thresholds lay until the results of the first reviews were known.

“An understanding of the minimum requirements for registration can emerge only as a result of the practice of regulation - of building up a body of case histories. I suspect it will always be more of an art than a science,” she said.

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