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Campus Morning Mail, Tuesday: TEQSA is in serious strife while Swinburne sells on substance

Cash in the chips

Murdoch University reports a partnership with the Western Australia Potato Marketing Corporation.  For potato researchers the people at the PMC are the people to know in the golden west- what with the way they regulate the supply of spuds. Yes the government sticks its bib into the chip fryer and no Campus Morning Mail is not making this up.

 TEQSA in trouble 

Kwong Lee Dow is famously polite so the language in his and Valerie Braithwaite’s regulatory review of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is restrained. However their meaning is quite clear.  TEQSA has alienated the universities and private colleges it is supposed to regulate. “All new regulators have teething problems and their cultures can and do evolve. The strength of the sector’s reaction however, indicates that something more fundamental has gone awry. … TEQSA faces challenges which require action. Some of these challenges are a by-product of the higher education architecture and indeed the legislation underpinning regulation, while others are a result of TEQSA’s regulatory approach.”
And they told us what they really thought deep in the report; “a main conclusion for this review is that concerns of over-regulation, unnecessary demands for information and an unwillingness to meet face-to-face and discuss rather than send long pieces of correspondence, do not come only from large established universities. It seems to us that it is the smaller less well-resourced providers that are hardest hit by TEQSA’s current regulatory approaches.”
Lee Dow and Braithwaite make the important but easily overlooked point that universities all have ample cultural and institutional checks and balances, “all higher education providers are highly attuned to the importance of reputational capital.”  Institutions also report to masses of public sector agencies and were closely observed long before TEQSA turned up.  But while there is an overarching role for the regulator it has gone beyond the basis of its brief, to oversight institutions on the basis of “necessity, risk and proportionality.” Even worse, it seems as if TEQSA sees itself as police, not partner in assessing universities and colleges.
There is more, much more, of the same. Overall Lee Dow and Braithwaite suggest TEQSA slim down, ease up and get on with its key activities, “initial provider registration and course accreditation” and leave quality assurance to the other agencies already tasked to assess it. But the best bit (at least for appreciators of irony) is a proposed regulator for the regulator; “an overarching advisory council with stakeholder representatives and subject experts. Such a council could also provide advice to the minister on how TEQSA is progressing against its strategic plan.”
So what happens now? Nothing before the election. But university minister Kim Carr made it plain yesterday what he thought of the review describing it as “commendable”.  “A key component of future strategies will be to ensure that all actions to improve the legislation applied to universities and higher education providers are aligned to streamline legislative requirements and reduce duplication in regulation and associated reporting of unnecessary information and data, ” he said. And back in February Tony Abbott told Universities Australia that there would be less red tape if he won. All TEQSA would say yesterday was that “it is considering the report and its recommendations.”
But then what could it say? The agency as currently configured is in mortal strife.  Or at least it is, as commentator Andrew Dempster points out, until the first quality crisis at a big provider. And if you think that can’t happen you were not watching the deregulation of training in Victoria.

 Not that anyone cares

The Innovative Research Universities team was first off the blocks yesterday,supporting Lee Dow and Braithwaite,the report makes clear that the legislative framework has pushed TEQSA into difficult positions but also that the relationships across the various bodies involved must be better,” IRU chair Professor Barney Glover said.  National Tertiary Education Union national president Jeannie Rea quickly followed. “On first reading, the NTEU is very supportive of the bulk of the report’s recommendations,” she said. Ms Rea is also confident that Kim Carr will still be in his present job after the election, adding the union “looks forward to seeing how he intends to implement the report’s recommendations.”
Regional Universities Network chair David Battersby (Ballarat U) agreed, “the report advocated a sensible response to the regulatory issues facing the sector, and that the reviewers, Professor Kwong Lee Dow and Professor Valerie Braithwaite, had produced a comprehensive report in a short space of time.” And Universities Australia modestly reminded us, “the recommendations of the report largely reflect the positions put forward by UA.”
Among all the endorsements University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington spelt out what the report meant. “It is good to see the report reminding us that TEQSA was created to regulate, rather than do things like detailed quality assurance and program accreditation. The recommendations on data collection, which had become so fraught, seem a clear indication TEQSA must scale down its operations and deal more appropriately with long established, low risk, self-accrediting entities.”

Uni still super-ish

UniSuper has reduced the base for future pensions (based on earnings from 2015) for members of its Defined Benefit Scheme. The DBS  uses wages as the basis for earnings. The Fund  blames “higher  salary increases, lower investment returns and much longer life expectancies than had been anticipated.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that the risk of benefits already accrued being reduced is over. “As a result of string investment performance during. 2012-13m the defined benefit division’s assets are now expected to be sufficient, over the longer term, to cover all benefits that have accrued to date.”  This has nothing to do with the vast majority of members whose future super payments are at the mercy of the markets

Smart Swinburne

A couple of months back Swinburne University of Technology launched its “think forward”  TVC on The Voice (Lord knows what that cost). It was a professional piece with only one drawback – it could be badged by just about any technology specialist university in the country. But now Swinburne has done something superior to sell itself as an applied school, launching five online courses through Open Universities Australia Open2Study brand. The four week courses cover physics, game development and one called “innovation for powerful outcomes,” which sounds like the name of Kevin Rudd’s policy speech. Units in robotics and chemistry follow later in the year. This is seriously sensible stuff. The best way for a university to sell its credentials in any discipline is to show prospective students the quality of its teaching – which is exactly what these short courses can do – and at, CMM guesses, a fraction of the cost of a TVC made to screen in prime time.

Attack of the ATARS

A hack short of a headline can always get a run by warning that school leavers are getting into university on inadequate ATARs.  Of course, it is not that simple, as Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities points out. “An endeavour to define the academic skills required for higher education is better done against the existing criterion based data on school leaver academic capability than on a ranking,” he argues. In any case, ATARS were designed for an age when university places were rationed, which is not now. “When universities can take as many students as their staff, facilities and judgement of suitability permit the question of rationing reduces. Where a university wishes to delimit suitability for a course, or all courses, it makes more sense to focus on the evidence of each person’s achievement against a defined level of knowledge and capability, not how the applicant stands compared with the next person,” King claims.
It’s a solid argument; the problem is the ATAR is now less a measure of a student’s relative performance than an indication of institutional standing. Thus UNSW announced last month it was setting a floor on what ATARS it would accept and why. Murdoch University has now done the same. As Bethany Hiatt reported in The West Australian yesterday, Murdoch has reversed its 2011 previous policy of cutting entry scores to increase enrolments. From 2014 the university’s base entry score will be 70, in line with competitor Curtin. According to DVC (Academic) Ann Capling the old policy sent the wrong message about academic standards. Not that it had anything to do with her, you understand – her appointment to Murdoch was not announced until October 2011.

 You never know your luck

The Australian Academy of Science wants the next government to review the bureaucratic burden on researchers so that administration only takes 10 per cent of their time. Perhaps TEQSA could do the job.

 Make friends fast

Over at the Sydney Institute CMM’s evil twin argues the government’s decision to hold off imposing a cap on self education tax deductions occurred because of a university alliance with industry and professional associations. Memo university lobbyists, make more friends in industry and make them fast.

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Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au