The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency legislation passed through the Senate yesterday, and is expected to receive Coalition backing in the House of Representatives. As I seem to be the only person on the public record opposed to TEQSA, for later I-told-you-so purposes here’s a summary of my objections:
(1) It takes higher education standards into the realm of partisan politics. ‘Standards’ on getting a licence to operate as a higher education provider, course accreditation, and general ‘teaching and learning’ will all now be set by one individual, the federal minister. There are processes to ensure the minister largely acts on expert advice, but he/she will appoint the experts, and ultimately I don’t think he/she has to follow the advice.
The current minister insists that he will respect academic freedom, and I don’t disbelieve him. But it is a bit like the Liberals backing the idea of a national curriculum when in government, and then professing to be appalled when Labor later appoints its mates to write it. The problem is creating such a power in the first place. I set out a couple of the scenarios in this Age article.
(2) There is too much centralisation. Even if the experts could set their standards without the minister’s approval, this would still be a problem. Standards are contestable – I wrote another Age article pointing out that draft standards released to date contain some dubious requirements.
(3) I don’t dispute that third-party scrutiny of higher education courses is desirable. But the role of existing third-party accreditation bodies is unclear. Many professional degrees have existing bodies that approve their courses. Presumably they will be consulted in setting standards, but will TEQSA just end up being a redundant additional layer of regulation? Wouldn’t it have been better to insist on third-party scrutiny or approval, but not to create a single mega-regulator?
(4) The private providers have generally supported TEQSA, partly because they are frustrated at how slow the current state accreditation bodies have sometimes been. The legislation gave TEQSA an extendable 12 month deadline on making accreditation decisions, reduced in an amendment to 9 months. Some kind of time limit is presumably an improvement, though 9 months isn’t exactly quick decision making. I fear that the myth of Commonwealth competence might be at work here. If we had a competitive third-party accreditation market, that would create stronger pressures to get the job done in a timely way.