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Uni sector regulation beset by red tape: report

The governent must reduce duplication across the various Acts governing regulation of the university sector, the report said. Theen Moy

The higher education sector’s main regulatory body should have its functions reduced, according to a new government report that has called for a reduction in red tape for universities.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) was established in 2011, joining the the Higher Education Standards Panel and the Australian Qualifications Framework Council as agencies designed maintain quality in the tertiary education system.

In practice, however, university representatives have voiced concerns of endless paperwork and of duplication in meeting various standards.

In releasing the The Review of Higher Education Regulation Report today, Higher Education minister Kim Carr noted “an unnecessarily heavy reporting burden imposed on higher education providers by TEQSA in particular, but also my department, and the need to look at short and longer term strategies to reduce this”.

“This report provides an opportunity to further improve our systems and the Government will formally respond to it following consultations with the sector,” he said.

The report said that TEQSA was established in an already crowded regulatory environment and made a range of recommendations, including:

  • reducing TEQSA’s functions and its number of Commissioners
  • a Ministerial direction to the TEQSA CEO regarding allocation of resources so it can accredit courses more quickly
  • reducing duplication across the various Acts that govern university regulation
  • improving information-sharing across agencies to reduce the need for universities to report the same information multiple times to various bodies

Professor Fred Hilmer, Vice-Chancellor of UNSW, Chair of the Group of Eight (Go8) at University of New South Wales, welcomed the report.

“It supports the position the Go8 has been arguing very strongly for some time – that TEQSA has lost its way and should focus on minimum standards. A major problem has been the way in which TEQSA has interpreted its functions and powers,” he said.

It’s most important recommendation was “that the Government should reduce TEQSA’s functions to focus on its core activities - provider registration and course accreditation,” he said.

Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor at Charles Darwin University and Chair of Innovative Research Universities group said he was reasonably optimistic the recommendations would result in actual policy change.

“The report is actually a very thorough, evidence-based analysis of the burden that has increased on the sector. The report nicely argues there’s a need for resetting,” he said.

“This review was initiated under a Labor government and the Coalition has made some strong comments about the regulatory burden on universities. I would be hopeful that, if there’s a change of government, that the Coalition would action these recommendations quickly,” said Professor Glover.

“The sector needs some stability and long term support in terms of the regulatory burden but also allowing the sector to develop without having imposed upon it a continuous regime of major policy reform.”

Higher education policy expert Gavin Moodie, Principal Policy Adviser at RMIT University, said it was ironic that a report on red tape was 99 pages long.

“The report notes that the Bradley review recommended a single tertiary education regulator as a preliminary to opening the demand driven system to all approved providers, whereas currently demand-driven Commonwealth supported places are available only to the public universities,” he said.

“If the demand driven system is opened to private providers as Bradley recommended, TEQSA will have to be strengthened again.”

Dr Moodie think the most important recommendation called for the government to “establish mechanisms for TEQSA to consult with stakeholders and receive sector advice; for example by creating an overarching advisory council with stakeholder representatives and subject experts. Such a council could also provide advice to the Minister on how TEQSA is progressing against its Strategic Plan.”

“Implementing this recommendation well will address the report’s main concerns about the relations between TEQSA and higher education institutions. I am optimistic that the Government will reduce the regulatory requirements on universities and perhaps on other higher education institutions, since both Labor and the Coalition have expressed strong commitment to do this,” said Dr Moodie.

“However, I am concerned that this will result in simply weakening quality assurance rather than the more sophisticated partnership between regulators and the regulated sought by the report.”

Professor Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney, welcomed the report.

“We believe that the regulatory red tape burden we currently face is stifling the international competitiveness of Australia’s higher education sector. The 11 recommendations in the report will help address these, while still ensuring that appropriate quality assurance safeguards are in place,” Dr Spence said.

“We particularly welcome the strong recommendation in the report that the role of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency be clarified, and focused on provider registration and re-accreditation.”

Vicki Thomson, Executive Director of the Australian Technology Network (ATN) of Universities said a key recommendation relates to detaching quality assurance from TEQSA.

“Taking the Q out of TEQSA, as it were. As a sector we need to be mindful of the reasons why a national regulator was sought by the higher education sector; that is, to ensure the quality of Australian higher education is protected, and that protection can be promoted as a source of competitive advantage internationally,” she said.

“An ongoing role for the national regulator has been endorsed by the report, and that is supported by the ATN, however the ATN believe that we need to keep the Q in TEQSA. There is a role for quality assurance in the higher education regulator.”

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