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.