AUSTRALIA: Alarm over proposed quality agency

Plans by the federal government to introduce legislation this month covering quality assurance and academic standards have raised fears the nation's universities will lose much of their autonomy and possibly some of their funding.

A new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is to be created to replace the existing Australian Universities Quality Agency which, while it conducts regular audits of all higher education institutions and releases public reports on its findings, lacks the authority to oblige institutions to adopt its recommendations.

The powerful Group of Eight research intensive universities, in particular, is strongly opposed to what it claims will be a highly intrusive new system. The group's concerns were raised by the lack of debate and consultation surrounding the drafting of the legislation and these were hardly eased when a two-day closed government briefing was held this week with key players being excluded.

Go8 chair Professor Alan Robson said the legislation establishing the new tertiary education regulator had been drafted "in a closed manner with rather limited consultation with universities and other interest groups".

"There are basic policy purposes and fundamental issues about university autonomy which have not been discussed anywhere as much as in North America, Britain and continental Europe," Robson said.

"It would appear as though the government is trying to ram this legislation through even though Labor is committed to evidence-based policy formulation and a respect for university autonomy, academic freedom and mission differences among institutions in its pre-election statements in 2007 and 2010."

Robson, who heads the University of Western Australia, said "the tightly balanced federal parliament" (the Labor minority government relies on the support of three independents) should demand higher standards of the government's policy process. He said universities had yet to see Labor's pre-election commitments reflected in government practices and there had been "a disconcerting lack of transparency in the public policy processes" relating to higher education standards and quality.

The group's executive director, Mike Gallagher, has prepared a substantial policy paper of more than 200 pages addressing The Accountability for Quality Agenda in Higher Education*. The paper is a primer on quality assurance issues and includes detailed discussions of the way these have been handled by governments in Britain, Europe and the US. It devotes sections to developments in the UK, the OECD, the Bologna process and the American Spellings Commission.

In his paper, Gallagher says the matters at stake "are too significant and controversial for such a myopic and potentially manipulable approach...If trust is to be rebuilt, and sustainable reform is to be achieved, there is no viable option other than a fully open dialogue. That means, at the very least, the issuing of a comprehensive discussion paper ahead of any draft legislation".

Before his appointment in 2007 as Executive Director of the Go8, Gallagher was Director of Policy and Planning at the Australian National University. He had also been responsible for federal administration of higher education at various times over the past 20 year and has worked overseas for the World Bank while continuing to undertake contracts for the OECD on higher education issues.

When he released the paper, Robson noted that it raised more than 100 questions that awaited answers from the government. But he said there was no open process for addressing such questions.

"A threshold issue is whether TEQSA should have the legal power to set standards. How can legislation be prepared without any prior discussion of the meaning of standards, their coverage and ownership?

"The Go8 agrees with the government that consistency in provider registration and re-registration requirements is essential to avoid rogue providers from setting up and continuing to operate. However, requiring national consistency in institutional practices, educational quality and graduate attainment is at odds with the realities of Australian higher education and future needs."

Gallagher has been rather more severe in condemning the government for its failure to offer more detail about the legislation and provide opportunities for discussion and debate. He has referred publicly to the legislation as a "Soviet-era style interference in university affairs" and claimed it was being rushed into parliament without open debate.

The legislation is due to be presented before parliament rises this month. The closed briefing was held for a select number of sector representatives who had limited opportunities to express their views or debate any topics. Gallagher was among those not invited.

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans said criticism of the government was misplaced and some of it was "quite intemperate in drawing parallels with the Soviet era". He said higher education providers with "performance issues" would be closely scrutinised and could ultimately face sanctions but that established institutions with a record of high performance would face little involvement by TEQSA.

Evans said there was broad support across the higher education sector for establishing a national regulator that had the capacity to act where serious quality issues had been identified.

In his paper, Gallagher says governments in many countries exert pressures on universities to be more accountable for the results they manage to achieve with the resources available to them: "A recently added twist, ironically within the context of falling government investment and rising student demand, is that governments are intruding into areas which have long been regarded as prerogatives of autonomous universities."

He says his paper had been prepared as a draft to focus discussion between Australian and British policy analysts in the first instance and later with US counterparts: "The main reason for a bilateral discussion initially is that there are three significant factors in common between the Australian and British higher education contexts...there are commonalities in the structure and culture of universities in the UK and Australia...They have traditionally enjoyed, by comparison with public universities in continental Europe, the Americas and Asia, a relatively high level of autonomy...

"Public universities in North America have many similar characteristics but they function within mixed public-private systems and where states or provinces, as distinct from national government, have the major financing responsibilities for teaching-related purposes."