AUSTRALIA: Universities told to reveal all

Universities across Australia will be required to reveal more details than ever before about the way they operate. For the first time, information about each institution, its courses, student to staff ratios, graduate outcomes, fee levels and quality of teaching will be available on a government 'My University' website.

The website will be operational by 2012 when the government will also remove limits on the number of government-funded places universities can offer - a move expected to create a highly competitive market for top students.

Creation of the new website follows the government's decision to provide information about every school in Australia with a `My School' website. Launched in late January, the site provides literacy and numeracy test results for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and enables comparisons to be made between schools with similar socio-economic profiles.

Announcing the latest development last Wednesday at the annual conference of the vice-chancellors' organisation, Universities Australia, federal Education Minister Julia Gillard said universities would be required to publish more information about their courses, campus facilities, support services and, "most importantly", the quality of teaching and learning outcomes.

Gillard said the My University site would "showcase the quality of Australia's higher education providers" and would be developed in partnership with the sector.

"Information will be provided in an easily accessible form for students and parents, universities will be able to learn from the success of their colleagues and the learning outcomes and the quality of teaching of our universities will become better known in the general community," she said.

"We know this is a major undertaking and the expertise of the sector will be vital in providing students and the public with the best information we can about institutional quality and learning outcomes."

The government wanted students to use the data available on the site to make their choice of university on the basis of information about quality rather than having to rely on hearsay, inference from entry requirements or the perceived prestige of universities, Gillard said.

"My University will provide a robust, consolidated and transparent source of information about all of Australia's 39 universities. Information will be provided in an easily accessible form for students and parents. [It] will also allow universities to learn from the success of their colleagues and inform the community about the quality of teaching at our universities."

A new regulatory body, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, is likely to be given responsibility for the website and the information it contains.

Reaction from higher education groups was generally positive. Universities Australia Chief Executive Dr Glenn Withers said universities were committed to transparency.

"'They are remarkably open already via their websites, public guides, reports to parliament, auditors general, ombudsmen and more," Withers said. "They fully welcome anything that can enhance this transparency through new, well-designed initiatives for universities and, importantly, for all other tertiary providers.'"

President of the National Tertiary Education, Dr Carolyn Allport, said the proposed website would be useful in providing more transparent information about universities.

"New university students can often find the choice of university and the selection of courses and programmes bewildering," Allport said. "It can be a difficult decision, especially for young people who are coming straight from the schooling system."

But she said universities were independent and already accountable for the teaching and research undertaken through quality assurance and government oversight.

"It is not yet clear what kinds of information the My University website intends to publish. Nonetheless, the primary commitment of government should be to respect institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

"Government policy should not result in a lessening of institutional diversity nor impede the operation of academic freedom by lessening interest in more esoteric areas of research."

National Union of Students President Carla Drakeford said there was a demand from students for more information and this had resulted in the union creating its own university ratings which would be published in September.

But Drakeford was concerned students might abandon universities the website suggested were performing poorly.

"We would be worried that under a deregulated system of student places, there will be a huge influx into the top -five universities with students neglecting regional universities and small institutions," she said.

* See AUSTRALIA: De-mystifying the university by Professor Marcia Devlin in our Features section.

I have the greatest admiration for Julia Gillard and I have no doubt that she will one day be the Prime Minister. That said, I have doubts about the increasing control that the bureaucracy and the machinery it brings has upon the university. The university is a place where the unexpected happens every day. It is impossible to predict what will happen when minds meet together to look at the evidence: old minds, young minds and unusual minds. You cannot measure or make plans about the unpredictable. The Government has ways of managing the defence forces, the police, and the gaols. None of them is a good way of managing the chaotic creative process of what happens in a university. The best universities may well be the ones that were least expected to succeed last year. However, if the oppresive weight of rankings is used to dismiss what has not yet been discovered, then creativity is killed. My advice is to ignore rankings because they may be out of date next year.

Giles Pickford (retired university administrator)