AUSTRALIA: Audits hold institutions accountable

Federal government reforms in the early 1990s amalgamated Australia's universities and other higher education institutions into larger groupings. But little thought was given to harmonising the respective external quality assurance arrangements of the different sectors. Through the 1990s, the number of national quality assurance bodies around the world grew apace and Australia was increasingly out of step not having one. This was particularly noticeable because of the rapid growth in full-fee-paying overseas student numbers.

In 1999, both the federal government and the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee were investigating the establishment of such a body and, in December that year, the Federal Education Minister announced the establishment of the Australian Universities Quality Agency, or AUQA. The Minister stated that as Australia had no external review of quality assurance processes in universities, it needed to signal "to the community and the rest of the world that the quality of the higher education system was assured through a rigorous external audit of university quality assurance processes".

AUQA was then formed as a not-for-profit company, and not an arm of government, by the ministerial council of nine education ministers from the state, territory and federal governments with the core task of carrying out quality audits of universities (and a small number of other institutions). Non-university institutions in Australia are subject to accreditation by the respective state or territory government and, in addition to the university auditing task, AUQA is required to audit these accrediting organisations as well.

The quality audit holds an organisation accountable for having processes in place to achieve its purposes or objectives, and for implementing these in such a way that the purposes are actually achieved (often called 'fitness for purpose') and, hence, AUQA's audits reinforce institutional diversity. Accrediting organisations, however, are expected to operate with the same set of 'protocols' in their checks of institutions so AUQA's audits of the agencies are supposed to lead to greater consistency and homogeneity among the agencies when they make accreditation decisions for non-university providers of higher education.

There has been some criticism that AUQA "only looks at processes not outcomes" or that it "looks only at the processes intended to achieve quality and not at the quality itself". In fact, AUQA considers outcomes as evidence of the effectiveness of the processes; it looks at processes to check the outcomes are being achieved systematically and can be amended purposefully. Furthermore, the ministerial statement mentioned above shows AUQA's prime purpose is to review processes.

In 2006, AUQA commissioned an independent review of its activities. The review panel included high-level membership from Australia and overseas, and it obtained wide input from the higher education sector and from other interested parties. The review panel found:

- AUQA had established a robust quality audit system that was rigorous and generally well-respected.
- AUQA had detailed and effective procedures for audits that included auditor appointment and training, extensive and thorough investigation, and consistent implementation.
- AUQA had successfully tackled a demanding audit schedule since its establishment.
- There was evidence to suggest, from higher education sector feedback, that AUQA had had a positive impact in raising awareness of quality matters, in developing a commitment to quality and quality enhancement across the sector, and also in showcasing good practice within the sector.
- In general, the fitness-for-purpose model and the peer review approach had been successfully implemented and had led to general commitment and engagement by the sector.

It was the panel's opinion that AUQA did appear to deliver value for money. Following the review, the ministerial council agreed to revise AUQA's objectives to include an explicit reference to quality improvement, and to ascertaining the standards being achieved by institutions.

The agency has now developed a framework for considering standards and for discussion with universities, in the second cycle of audits, about their benchmarking activities and their national and international comparisons of standards.

From its inception, AUQA made it clear that its audit scope included all activities carried out in the name of the 'auditee', wherever and by whomever they were carried out. Therefore, the agency has investigated in detail not only universities' operations on their own campuses but also those through partner organisations in Australia and overseas. In its first five-year cycle, AUQA visited about 90 overseas programmes and universities are now looking critically at their offshore operations, with many having been terminated.

In the second cycle, AUQA is concentrating on two areas or 'themes' for each audit rather than embracing the whole institution. The purpose is to keep the audit effect fresh and permit investigation of those themes in greater detail than was possible in the first audit cycle. As it moves into the second cycle of university audits, the agency is also beginning a first round of auditing non-university higher education providers that are now required to be audited so their students can access federal government loans.

Australia has a complex but highly integrated quality assurance framework for higher education with responsibility shared among various arms of government at state-territory and national-federal level; with individual institutions and associations of institutions (primarily Universities Australia); and between independent agencies such as AUQA and the Australian Qualifications Framework Advisory Board.

Within this complex set-up, the Ministerial Council has stated that AUQA is "the principal national quality assurance agency in higher education with the responsibility of providing public assurance of the quality of Australia's universities and other institutions of higher education, and assisting in enhancing the academic quality of these institutions". The agency collaborates with all other parties in this QA framework to enhance the quality of Australian higher education.

The independent review of AUQA found it had been successful in the purposes for which it was created. Some institutions and some of their staff bewail (with some justification) the increase in regulation that institutions are subject to, and have a negative view of the agency as being part of that regulatory load. The majority of institutions, however, recognise the value of regular self-reviews (which is stressed by AUQA) followed by an independent validation such as is provided by the agency.

* David Woodhouse is Executive Director of AUQA and President of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education.