TEQSA’s Ian Hawke – Challenges for higher education

The higher education teaching and learning environment has never been more challenging for the global academic community, requiring a multifaceted response from lecturers and leaders, according to Ian Hawke, commissioner of the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency – TEQSA – an independent statutory authority established in 2011 to regulate and assure higher education quality.

In a keynote address at the 2014 South African Technology Network conference, which brought together seven member institutions from South Africa’s universities of technology and the Polytechnic of Namibia, Hawke said student bodies were more diverse in their origins and aspirations than ever before.

Enumerating the challenges facing the international higher education landscape currently, he said: “We have huge numbers of students needing different kinds of support, and in a digital age, face-to-face communication can no longer be depended on as the sole mode of teaching.

“Teachers cannot afford to be one-trick ponies anymore because students have diverse backgrounds and aspirations, and capacities that reflect on those,” Hawke said in a panel discussion the following day on the subject of “Enhancing the Teaching and Learning Environment”.

In addition, he noted that human resources challenges were many and varied: staff are frequently less tech savvy than their students; workforce casualisation; and a system which increasingly looks to reward productive staff members, as opposed to good teachers.

A look from the outside

First exposed to the South African higher education sector in 2002 when he was invited to visit the former Pretoria Technikon, the Melbourne-based commissioner returned to South Africa in 2004 to implement a capacity-building programme for the former technikon (polytechnic) sector at the request of the Committee of Technikon Principals.

Hawke was also the international auditor on a large panel involved in the institutional audit in April 2007 of the Tshwane University of Technology, or TUT.

Although yet to visit most of the country’s universities of technology on his itinerary at the time of his interview with University World News, Hawke said he had thus far observed “no diminution” of the challenges facing South African higher education.

“What I can say is that the sector is aware of the dimensions of those challenges, what is needed to ensure successful outcomes, and has shown a commitment to improved performance.”

Highlighting key similarities between Australia and South Africa in his keynote speech, Hawke said both countries had been part of a global trend towards the massification of higher education over the past two decades.

Along with growth in scale, the sector had become increasingly diverse and complex.

More recently, a new feature had emerged across the global landscape: universal entitlement, which captured a state’s obligation to ensure equitable access to higher education.

Additionally, institutional strategy had “become real”, moving beyond fitness for purpose – the concept underpinning the quality audit movement – towards issues of financial sustainability. “As a consequence, cost containment and diversification are critical and universities are investing in establishing real-time evidence of their impact,” he said.

Developments in Australia

Turning to Australia, Hawke said progressive privatisation of higher education in Australia and fee deregulation had contributed to intense competition between institutions and aggressive recruitment of students, to the extent that traditional universities were now actively encroaching on the vocational sector and “poaching” its students.

For its own part, the Australian training sector had in some cases abandoned its niche and priority areas and was also looking to grow through aggressive recruitment in higher education, he said. At least a dozen Australian Technical and Further Education, or TAFE, institutions are now registered for higher education.

All 172 higher education institutions in Australia, of which 40 are universities, were competing in what Hawke described as a “free-wheeling, commercial environment”, not uncommon in many other countries.

“These institutions are following the money, marketing intensely and looking for reputational advantage. Some focus on admission standards, pricing, leveraging their activity in research (often at the expense of teaching) and there is an unseemly race for international ranking positions that may be counter-productive but is a continual focus of activity,” he said.

While there is some evidence of this kind of trend in South Africa, it remains a far more regulated landscape. Hawke told University World News that it was entirely understandable that the South African sector would be “highly directed and managed” given its transformation and developmental imperatives.

Australia, on the other hand, is moving rapidly towards deregulation, competing openly for domestic and international students as well as partnerships.

According to Hawke, there are more than 300,000 foreign students in Australia who make up more than a quarter of total enrolment, all of whom are paying “significant sums” to study in Australian institutions. While the United States and Britain were still the biggest global players in foreign student education provision, Australia was a close third.

Australian institutions were also displaying aggressive behaviour around the development of partnerships.

Hawke said in a 1990 survey, 36 participating universities indicated a total number of about 200 partners around the world. In 2013, a similar survey of 39 universities reported the number of partners was in excess of 7,000.

Not all of these partnerships are international. Reflecting the trend for universities towards urbanisation, Hawke said: “Our regional institutions particularly are also following populations to the cities, and some are doing so through domestic partners.”


On the issue of articulation between higher education institutions in Australia, including the vocational sector, Hawke said the sector is governed by a “well-structured set of arrangements” developed over the last decade and longer.

“Graduates of vocational courses do quite well when they articulate into higher education,” he told University World News.

“We have well-worn and established pathways. Institutions themselves manage credit arrangements for articulation, but there is a commonality of approach.”

According to Hawke, of the 172 higher education providers in Australia, more than half are dual-sector providers – institutions that provide seamless access to both vocational and higher education. About 75% of the universities offer vocational and-or foundational courses.

The result is a growing tendency, despite increased competition, towards convergence between the two sectors, he told University World News.

While the struggle for institutional identity is not unfamiliar to South African universities of technology, which this year celebrate 10 years of ‘university’ status, articulation between universities of technology and their technical and vocational training college counterparts remains a work-in-progress, despite a decade of debate on the merits of a more portable qualification system.

While aspects of competition exist between institutions within the South African higher education sector, the fact remains that there are not enough places in universities to satisfy demand for tertiary education.

Despite this, the persistence of a hierarchy in the sector between traditional universities and universities of technology is still widely felt and several speakers at the 2014 SATN conference called for greater collaboration and cooperation between the country’s 23 higher education institutions.