AUSTRALIA: New quality and standards watchdog

As part of its 2009 budget statements, the Australian government announced its intention to create a Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. This was the result of a recommendation from a review of higher education to create a single national regulatory body.

Currently, external quality assurance for the nation's 39 universities and some other higher education institutions is handled by the Australian Universities Quality Agency. Responsibility for the other 150 non-university institutions (known as non self-accrediting institutions or NSAIs) is shared among the state, territory and federal governments, depending on the location of the institution.

While this fragmentation allows different states to adopt different policies for their respective sectors, it is problematic in other ways. With requirements varying between states, there is an incentive for a new institution to seek the least onerous rules; institutions operating in several states have multiple sets of requirements, possibly duplicative or conflicting; and as more of these institutions operate abroad, it is difficult for students and authorities in other countries to know which the relevant agency is.

The review therefore recommended a single agency be set up to oversee these non-university institutions. It then became natural to include AUQA in the new agency so there was a single agency responsible for the whole of higher education.

If possible, the new agency should cover vocational education as well, so becoming a tertiary education body, the review said. Although the new body has become known as TEQSA, it seems likely that for the next few years, it will only cover higher education. The government expects the two sectors to come under the same body by about 2013.

Australia has a set of 'protocols' that define the characteristics of any higher education institution, and the specific characteristics of different types. Those currently under state and territory governments (the NSAIs) are accredited (that is, checked against the relevant protocol) and have their programmes accredited by the respective government but this role will be taken over by TEQSA.

About a third of the NSAIs are already audited by AUQA against their academic objectives (as a condition of benefiting from federal funds). These audits will also be carried out by TEQSA and are likely to be extended to all the institutes.

An apparently new proposal is that universities also be accredited by TEQSA but this is not as new as it seems. Another of the protocols defines a university and AUQA has checked universities against the relevant protocol since it began its audits in 2001.

What is new is that the protocols were revised a couple of years ago and the definition of a university is now much more extensive. Previously, it would have been very difficult for a university to fail; now, however, AUQA has already in its 2008 audit advised two universities to look carefully at a couple of the protocol requirements.

It is in the sense of tightening up on the stipulated characteristics of institutions that the federal review designated its proposed new entity a 'regulatory' body. The nature of any sanctions and who would have the authority to apply them, however, is yet to be determined.

This, like the 'take over' of state and territory powers in respect of NSAIs, is still subject to discussion and negotiation between the governments. There is no suggestion, though, that universities will lose their autonomy and become subject to external accreditation. The new agency will therefore audit and accredit.

The third area of attention of the quality assurance 'division' of the agency will be the standards achieved by the institutions. When AUQA began, it recognised that people link quality and standards and would likely expect a quality agency to comment on standards. As part of its audits, therefore, AUQA asks institutions how they determine and monitor standards, and how they compare them, nationally and internationally.

What AUQA found in its first cycle of audits (2002-07) was that universities have many procedures in place for ensuring the academic achievements of students but very little knowledge of how they compare to other institutions - a gap that is probably a major driver of the current interest in institutional rankings.

This is not saying that Australian university standards are low but that the institutions are not well placed to refute accusations of low or falling standards. The review repeated (without evidence) some of the common criticisms in this respect and hence advocated a strengthened attention to the standards achieved by students on graduation.

With a certain amount of prescience, in September 2008 AUQA assembled a group of experts in academic standards, and representatives of many relevant parties in the higher education sector, to make proposals on a more systematic approach to describing, setting, monitoring and reporting on academic achievement standards in Australian HE.

A discussion paper on this was issued recently, with comments due by 6 July. The intent (if the approach garners broad support) is to assemble discipline-based groups to produce the necessary statements, examples and procedures that will permit clear, meaningful and comparable reporting on the level of achievement of students and graduates.

The review report spoke of a regulatory body and although the name of the body eventually announced sounds as though it is solely a quality assurance agency, it is envisaged that TEQSA have other roles besides the audit, accreditation and standards work of the QA 'division'.

It is likely to incorporate oversight of the Australian Qualifications Framework (currently being revised), and the data collection task of the Federal department of education. It will also be expected to disseminate information. (If it set up a German CHE-like system, it would helpfully undercut the current crude whole-of-institution rankings.)

It may have a role in negotiating the foreshadowed 'compacts' (agreements) between the Government and institutions. The intent here seems to be that each institution sets out its intended achievements, with indicators, and a small percentage of the institution's Government funds (about 2.5%) are dependent on achievement of the agreed goals. TEQSA may also give policy advice.

Although it is not currently envisaged, one may speculate whether it will eventually become a 'buffer body' in the commonly used sense, with a broader responsibility for advising on funding.

AUQA has a high international reputation, and the intention is to maintain AUQA's visibility as it is absorbed into the new agency. Most of the tasks of the QA 'division' of the new agency are already being carried out by AUQA, and the main change will be strengthening: seek more explicit reports on standards, check the Protocols in more detail, and make greater use of the ability to audit an institution after a shorter or longer time period than the basic five years.

Continuing tasks will be the enhancement work, including publications, conferences and databases, and policy work. New tasks will include be the explicit ability to carry out cross-sectoral investigations (eg the parameters for double degrees, the variability of master courses, the use of the term 'professional doctorate', or operations in a particular country) or sub-institution audits of a single area or function.

There are several options for the way in which the responsibilities for the NSAIs will be exercised, including maintaining the existing state authorities but as branches of TEQSA, making greater use of professional associations, or having a single central entity.

TEQSA should exist by 2010, but it will take some time for the various functions to be transferred to the new agency. Meanwhile, it is business as usual for the existing institutions and agencies - in addition to all the activities necessary to plan and implement the new.

*David Woodhouse is Executive Director of the Australian University Quality Agency which is to be subsumed by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

This is definitely a commendable endeavor. It is good to reduce and to transfer some of the functions of the Ministry of Education and for the ministry to focus on how best education is served and provided with utmost efficiency to realize the goals set forth for the nation's development. The standards agency can, in coordination with the ministry, make comprehensive study, analysis and synthesis of programmes as regard standards.

While commonalities exist in the early stages of programs, latter stages would have to be appropriately addressed as these programmes should be treated differently particularly on procedural and administrative matters. Australia I believe would be leading the way and direction towards establishing a model for it to share and others to follow.

Leodegardo M. Pruna