by MICHAEL TOMLINSON
The new category standards (arising from Professor Peter Coaldrake’s review) have been through exhaustive consultations and enabling amendments to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act are now before parliament.
The recent submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment are generally supportive, not surprisingly as the proposals do not represent a radical departure from the status quo.
The big issue that might have caused some heat and light would have been the review recommending a “teaching only university” category which would not contain any requirements to undertake research. The review report, (pointedly titled “What’s in a name?”) recommended that: “along with teaching, the undertaking of research is, and should remain, a defining feature of what it means to be a university in Australia.”
Although that proposition may well have majority support, institutions need more options for their development than are currently available.
The current category standards are essentially binary, with various ”university” categories, distinct to the base category of “higher education provider”. There is no category for a higher education provider that is clearly well above the base threshold for quality, but does not have a strategic goal to develop a research profile.
We do not want providers just scraping over the threshold, we want them to aspire higher.
The Coaldrake review led to a new category being crafted on the basis of the existing criteria for unlimited Self-Accrediting Authority (SAA) for all fields and all levels. This was arguably redundant, as only aspiring universities would require it, and approval for unlimited SAA is bundled with university registration.
The new category was initially called ‘National Institute of Higher Education’, and required a provider to have mature and advanced processes for maintaining academic quality and integrity, a track record of successful delivery with strong student outcomes, depth in academic leadership to guide the development of the learning environment and a high level of supported scholarship to inform teaching based on advanced knowledge and inquiry. Such providers would have the capability to operate at a level of quality significantly above the floor. Although they would be free to conduct research, they would not be required to.
The new category looks quite like a teaching only university, and Education Minister Dan Tehan enhanced the resemblance by adopting “University College” as its title.
While some stakeholders maintain that this blurs the distinction with universities, the review also recommended tightening the research requirements for universities, thus heightening the contrast with other categories.
There are two applications of these research requirements, for assessing: (a) first-time applicants for registration in the University category; and (b) existing universities.
Assessing new applicants for the university category is problematic for TEQSA. The adequacy of the research profile has been the deciding issue in many applications, and the existing Standards are quite vague in their requirements. Applicants are required only to undertake research in the three fields where they are required to offer higher degrees by research.
How much research and the level of quality is not specified. A bush lawyer might argue that a provider whose staff published one mediocre paper in each of three fields in the preceding year would technically qualify, which would hardly maintain the reputation of Australian universities.
TEQSA has some discretion in awarding university status, and can take expert opinion on what quality and level of research should be required, but there is no peg in the Standards on which to hang this. So TEQSA asked for one to be included and Professor Coaldrake’s review obliged.
Universities should undertake research “at or above world standard” in the required number of fields, which is reasonable. It would be difficult to argue that we should settle for research below world standard, although the Higher Education Standards Panel has rightly pointed to the need to give appropriate consideration to recognising research in specialised fields of national importance.
The issues for existing universities are more straightforward. There was some anxiety about TEQSA inserting an additional layer of research evaluation on top of the existing frameworks. But this was never the intention. TEQSA would start from the basis of existing evaluations currently based on the ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) process, or whatever might replace that in the future, resorting to its own assessment only if necessary in the case of those specialised fields of national importance. TEQSA needs its own process only for first-time applicants, not yet rated on ERA.
The new Category Standards will provide a pathway for development for providers to follow as far as they wish, starting with the baseline category, now to be called “Institute of Higher Education”. They could then apply for self-accrediting authority in relevant fields, which would position them to go for university college status. That can either be the end-point of their development, or a springboard for full university status if developing a strong research profile fits with their strategic objectives.
There will be a variety of different roses to choose from, all smelling sweet.
Dr Michael Tomlinson FGIA FCS is a higher education and governance consultant, and the director responsible for TEQSA’s input into the review of the Category Standards during its formative stages.