The coming end of academic autonomy

On Friday the government released draft legislation for the biggest change to higher education organisation since the forced mergers of the Dawkins years: a new, national higher education quality regulator, to be known as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

TEQSA is a child of the WorkChoices High Court case, the Commonwealth using the corporations power to grab control of higher education accreditation from the states (though the draft does require state ministers to be consulted in some circumstances). All higher education providers will have to meet basic registration standards (called provider standards in the legislation), teaching and learning standards, qualification standards, information standards, and for universities research standards as well.

The standards will all be in delegated legislation, made by the minister on the advice of a Higher Education Standards Panel appointed by the minister, with regard to advice from TEQSA and state ministers. Though there are checks on the minister, overall this will concentrate a very large amount of power over Australian higher education in the federal government. The standards will be disallowable by either house of parliament, but cannot be amended by the parliament.

By contrast, the current system is highly decentralised. The universities are largely self-regulating on quality. They are self-accrediting, which means that they authorise their own courses through their internal quality control systems (typically an academic board). For the last decade or so they, along with other higher education providers in receipt of Commonwealth cash, have been subject to scrutiny by the Australian Universities Quality Agency. The minister can require compliance with a recommendation of AUQA, though so far as I am aware this has not happened. Other higher education providers are regulated by state governments.

The current system isn’t perfect. There is little public information about the standards universities set themselves or whether or not these standards are met, and into this vacuum go the perennial complaints about declining standards, which for the most part can be neither proved nor disproved. While in most of the professional disciplines there are outside bodies influencing what is taught, third-party scrutiny does not occur across all courses. For multi-state private providers in particular, they must go through similar processes multiple times to get registered and have their courses accredited.

Despite these flaws in current arrangements, on balance I am opposing TEQSA for three main reasons.

Reason one: While the performance of state higher education bureaucracies hasn’t always been good, support for TEQSA is built on the assumption (or as I think, myth) of Commonwealth competence. We need look no further than higher education policy since the Whitlam takeover of funding in 1974 to doubt Commonwealth competence in this area.

Reason two: This is not just a centralisation of government power over higher education, it is a substantial increase of government power over what happens in higher education, with the federal government planning to introduce controls never imposed by state governments. I had an article in the education section of The Age earlier this week warning against threats to academic freedom once a legal mechanism exists to control academic standards.

Reason three: TEQSA standards will almost certainly reduce the scope for diversity and experimentation, and we will head towards a higher education version of the national curriculum.

Having secured concessions on an apparently appalling first draft of the TEQSA legislation I suspect the higher education sector will roll over on the latest version. So I fear I will be a lonely sceptical voice in opposition. But for when it all goes pear-shaped, at least I have this on the public record.

26 Responses to “The coming end of academic autonomy

  • 1
    February 28th, 2011 04:19

    I think the main reason that no-one will care is that TEQSA will do nothing but kill trees and keep a few bureaucrats employed (like AUQA). I could be wrong, however — we could end up with a Confucian style testing system that has many things that are politically driven, but I still doubt anyone will care about that, and the reason is obvious — most of the complaints will be politically driven, and politically driven complaints are almost inevitably going to be about things that the average moron can at least understand something about and be offended by, and these are all cheaper to teach than things that matter. They won’t, for example, be about whether engineers need to learn an important aspect of signals and systems. They will, however, be about things like getting engineers and doctors (who need “community understanding” after all) to learn about early Australian history, the Magna Carta, or why using a prenomial noun phrase as a determiner is not bad English after all.

  • 2
    Jacques Chester
    February 28th, 2011 06:35

    Having secured concessions on an apparently appalling first draft of the TEQSA legislation I suspect the higher education sector will roll over on the latest version.

    This is an old negotiating tactic: include something that a) the other party can’t accept and b) you don’t really want. That way you can drop it in exchange for other tradeoffs.

    This is becoming a pattern for Gillard’s method of governing. Notice she pulled the same trick with the flood levy: included cuts to various boondoggle programs that she knew the Greens would want to retain.

  • 3
    Son of the Ratpack
    February 28th, 2011 06:52

    He who pays the piper calls the tune.

  • 4
    February 28th, 2011 06:56

    I aint convinced that the sector need any regulation or oversight to begin with? Now we have another power grab. And once the pollies and beuracrats take power, they won’t let it go easily, that’s for sure. Just another nail in the coffin of this once free country.

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    February 28th, 2011 07:26

    S of R – Yes, but this legislation actually marks the end of that approach. Until the WorkChoices case, the lack of constitutional power meant that they had to pay the piper to call the tune. Brendan Nelson expressed frustration that some private providers could ignore the Cth, because they took no government money. With the corporations power, the feds are going to call the tune without paying the piper.

  • 6
    Son of the Ratpack
    February 28th, 2011 08:47

    So under this proposal the Feds get to dictate to Bond University, even if it gets no Cth money? Very amusing. BTW, I am sure that at the time of the WorkChoices legislation and High Court case many people said to its cheerleaders that they need to be careful about what they wished for because a future Labor government would use the power for ends that they didn’t like.

  • 7
    Andrew Norton
    February 28th, 2011 09:24

    Bond gets research and FEE-HELP money, so they are already partly in the federal regulatory web. But like every institution, they now face massive increases in regulation.

    While the WorkChoices case was the trigger for this constitutional change, and a symptom of the Howard government’s misguided rejection of federalism, given the direction of High Court decisions since the 1920s it was only a matter of time before we arrived at this point.

    Only rewriting the Constitution can help us now.

  • 8
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 1st, 2011 05:35

    The Liberal state oppositions at the time of WC HC case were silent on Howard’s assault on Federalism, either out of misplaced loyalty or stupidity. Now they are in or about to in government, they find a Cth Labor government using Howard’s power against state institutions. Serves them right.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    March 1st, 2011 06:45

    Not that what an state opposition thinks would have made any difference.

  • 10
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 1st, 2011 06:57

    No difference at the time, but now they are in government they have far a weaker case when they complain

  • 11
    Peter T
    March 2nd, 2011 11:53

    Academic autonomy has been vanishing for years – under the pressures of the academy as market doctrine. This is just tidying up the corpse.

  • 12
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2011 12:34

    Peter T – I don’t actually think that universities should be immune from external pressures. Self-indulgent disregard of student interests is on the decline, and a good thing too.

  • 13
    March 2nd, 2011 13:32

    “Self-indulgent disregard of student interests is on the decline, and a good thing too”
    Actually, my feeling is that whilst this is possibly true at the individual level (were people really that bad 20 years ago?), at the group level, the story is entirely the opposite — I don’t think I’ve once heard anyone with any power suggest that a course should be opened because it will be good for students, but I’ve heard literally hundreds of times that courses should be opened because they make money, with no regard at all as to whether the course is going to be good, bad, or indifferent for students.

  • 14
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 2nd, 2011 14:45

    Conrad, presumably if a course is opened and lots of students do it then it must be good for them, in their judgement. I know, I know, students are naive, easily conned, don’t know what’s good for them, wouldn’t recognise a bad course if it bit them in the arse – but is this really true? Today’s students are tonorrow’s doctors, bankers, lawyers and engineers, after all. On average, they are more intelligent than the community as a whole. They must have some idea of what is good and what is not.

  • 15
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2011 14:57

    People are pretty much the same now as then. What’s changed is that there are more institutional and external pressures to improve teaching and respond to student interests.

  • 16
    March 2nd, 2011 16:31

    “What’s changed is that there are more institutional and external pressures to improve teaching and respond to student interests.”
    I agree with you, on both counts, depending on what you mean by “interests” — If you mean make students happier and respond to transient problems they have, that’s certainly true. If you mean create courses that they’re interested in, that’s true also. Alternatively, if you mean take their long term interests into account as a much more informed observer, then you’re wrong — I don’t know anywhere where people’s management seriously considers it (although I do know many individuals that run subjects that do — but management can and often does beat them into submission). This is partially because the people proposing the courses often have no real idea about what the long term prospects of students that do certain courses are (many have no idea in fact — if you’re not interested in certain statistics, how would you?). It’s also partially because different interests may be in conflict with other. For example, a student may be interested in criminology, but doing criminology may have poor job outcomes, which they will only worry about when they finish. You can’t fulfill both things here, and there seems no reason to stop people doing something where at least some will get good outcomes. Alternatively, no one is going to advertise the latter fact. Similarly, if the majority of students want an easy subject, but an easy subject means they learn less, again you have a conflict of interests.
    I’m not saying this is necessarily good or bad incidentally — I’m just denying that all types of student interests are considered. I’m also aware that it’s very hard to determine what employers will want or what students will want to learn over many years. Thus perhaps the best that can be done is to appeal to the immediate demands of students. However, I am denying that certain forms of student interests are considered — they’re not. If there was course where people apriori new students would learn nothing, but where people knew it would make a lot of money, it would get run.
    “but is this really true”
    Yes, and no doubt going for silly 40% targets will make it worse. I don’t think it’s all or nothing incidentally. There are many good courses you can do, and many good courses will get proposed because there is demand and they can make money (cf. because the universities cares about student interests, apart from the immediate). I just think it’s getting worse, and I’m simply denying that some interests are considered — thus I wouldn’t agree to any blanket statements like it’s getting better.

  • 17
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2011 17:26

    Conrad – I am on the policy side of the university rather than the academic, so I’ve not been directly involved in course development. But over 2005 and 2006 at the U of M there was the kind of consideration you say never happens – a long, hard think about what kinds of courses and graduates the institution should produce. Obviously the conclusions remain controversial – the Melbourne Model is an entrepreneurial venture in the sense that there is not a body of empirical evidence that can prove or disprove that this is the best way to provide university education.

    But on the whole I agree that there has never been a strong professional ethos surrounding teaching, in the way that some other professions have established practices and codes to protect their client groups. This is not to say that there aren’t lots of conscientious people, just that it is not deep in the corporate culture of higher education providers. Arts faculties leaders have for example long made misleading claims about the prospects of their graduates.

    On the other hand, I doubt students are systematically deluded about the likely employment outcomes from their courses. Arts and creative arts aside, the average graduate does ok, and few gaduates are unable to find any job.

  • 18
    March 3rd, 2011 04:23

    I would bet U of M is probably better than most places, since it has far more money (that being said, money wouldn’t necessarily protect you against some people wanting to get promoted on the basis of expanding things — as some of your own posts have noted in terms of building physical things).
    But there is everyone else to consider too. Here is pretty much what happened in one of the meetings that I generally try and avoid, where we had just got some new high level guy from CSIRO that had never worked in a university before. Our VC (now ANU’s):”waffle, waffle, waffle, more students, more money etc.”. New former CSIRO guy:”Has anyone ever considered what jobs and skills the Australian job market needs in the meeting of VCS?”. Our VC:”No, we’ve never even discussed it”. That says a lot really, and although I don’t think that universities are obliged to spend their money trying to work out what the job market wants, it does show how little it is considered (of course it’s only one factor in what is important, and perhaps it’s never been considered).

  • 19
    Andrew Norton
    March 3rd, 2011 17:42

    Conrad – Which goes to my point about external pressures. At the margins, applications respond to shifts in the labour market, so in a demand-driven system unis will have to take more note of these things.

    We are going from a system in which demand has always exceeded supply to one in which supply is likely to exceed demand. This is a radical change to the incentive structures.

    While unis are very unresponsive places without external pressures – a combination of the conservatism of staff and governance processes that stop things happening – the last 30 years shows that they do respond to financial incentives pretty quickly.

    So I think we are in the last couple of years of the kinds of conversation you report.

  • 20
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 3rd, 2011 20:32

    Conrad, I didn’t know you worked at a Dawkins University. Commiserations.

  • 21
    March 4th, 2011 04:11

    Thanks SOR — although it doesn’t actually make much difference (same pay, same sort of student-staff ratios, etc.) — the worst place I know of to work at present is UNSW, but that’s because of Hilmer causing constant and silly fights.

  • 22
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 4th, 2011 20:45

    But Conrad, while the pay is the same, the students you teach are not exactly elite, to put it charitably, at least to judge by the minimum ENTER scores they need to enter your august halls of learning.

  • 23
    March 5th, 2011 04:15

    SOR — there’s less difference than you’d imagine (the average score where I work would be about 10 points less than MU at a guess). The main differences are actually within universities. For example, it’s never good to work in places where you have an undergraduate clinical program or have to teach in small groups (e.g., optometry and some areas of engineering), because you end up doing tutorials all day because you can’t have bigger tutorial groups (i.e., you have a very high workload). Most people I know in this situation either changed area or are looking to — it’s one of the advantages of the Melbourne Model — they will actually be able to get staff in the long term in these areas. There are other less obvious differences. I like where I work because it is convenient to get to for me, and that in fact is a big reason many students like it also (If I worked at, for example, MU, I would spend an extra 1 hour a day travelling). Perhaps some people have a higher snob value than me, but these things really are important.

  • 24
    Andrew Norton
    March 5th, 2011 04:43

    It’s a pity that median ENTER (or ATAR, as it is now called) ranks are not published as it would give a better idea of what the classes are actually like than the minimum ATAR.

  • 25
    Andrew Norton
    March 5th, 2011 04:46

    And I have recently completed a series on online subjects at Conrad’s uni and was quite happy with them. If like me you are actually just interested in the subject content I doubt where you study makes a big difference.

  • 26
    March 5th, 2011 10:43

    At least the distributions I’ve seen (I’ve only ever worked at mid and top tier universities, so perhaps it is different for lower ones, but I doubt it), inevitably show a positive skew with the median perhaps 3-4 points over the cutoff (which suggests students really do choose based on prestige). The right tail may go all the way to the top if you have a major no-other university has (I know of at least one student in our 3rd year that got 99.90, and the course she is in is one of the really top courses in Melbourne, even if the students don’t realize!), which shows the benefit of offering something good other people don’t.
    More interesting are the students that get in via other means (i.e., not 18 year olds) — there’s almost no data on these guys at all as far as I’m aware, but in my experience (generally just by talking to them), they are far more affected by factors not related to prestige.