Provider Category Standards – IRU submission

The IRU has responded to the Senate Education and Employment Committee’s inquiry into the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020

Overview

The IRU supports the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020 (the Bill).

The Bill supports the substantial overhaul of the types of higher education provider that guide the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s (TEQSA) registration of higher education providers. The changes flow from the 2018 Review of the higher education provider category standards (Coaldrake review).

The Bill’s changes are essentially minor.  The major work will be done through changes to the Higher Education Standards Framework.  The IRU largely supports the changes proposed to the Standards Framework as set out in our response to the Higher Education Standards Panel earlier in 2020.

In particular, the IRU supports the tighter requirements for university standing, which the Bill’s Quality of research provisions at item 15 of Schedule One support.  This appears to be the one area of contention with the Bill.

The IRU’s main concern with the implementation of the Review outcomes is the unfortunate decision of the Minister for Education, Mr Tehan, to rename the proposed National Institute category as University Colleges, immediately recreating the potential for confusion between a University and other providers.  The Bill does not directly touch on this question.

The IRU submission has the following sections:

  1. the task of the Review of the Provider Categories;
  2. the research test proposed to be a university;
  3. changes in the Bill not related to the provider categories; and
  4. a detailed reading of the Bill, item by item.

Recommendation

The IRU recommends that the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020 be passed.

Review of the Higher Education Provider Categories

The review of the provider category standards had two main objectives:

  • to confirm the meaning of university in Australia, with requirements for research, teaching and engagement, that would distinguish universities from other providers; and
  • determine a way to identify and recognise the more capable of the other higher education providers, as leading teaching focused institutions.

The review delivered on these objectives.

The review recommended strengthening the test for being a university in several ways including:

  • engagement with employers, industry, and the professions in areas in which it offers courses of study;
  • strong civic leadership, engagement with its local and regional communities, and a commitment to social responsibility;
  • and enhanced requirements for research, which are considered further in the next section.

The Review proposed to create a category of national institutes for the leading teaching focussed institutions, including university owned colleges.

The Minister for Education, Mr Tehan, largely endorsed the Review’s proposals but chose to rename the new National Institute category as University Colleges, immediately maintaining the potential for confusion between a university and other providers.

The research test for being a university

The one possible area for concern with the Bill is the Quality of research provision (item 15 of Schedule One).

The research requirements the Higher Education Standards Panel proposes are:

“The undertaking of research that leads to new knowledge and original creative endeavour and research training are fundamental to the status of a higher education provider as an ‘Australian University’. To be registered and remain registered in the ‘Australian University’ category, the higher education provider:

  • from 1 January 2030, undertakes research at or above one or both of the benchmark standards that leads to the creation of new knowledge and original creative endeavour in:
    • at least three, or at least 50 per cent, of the broad (2-digit) fields of education in which it delivers courses of study, whichever is greater; or
    • all broad (2-digit) fields of education in which it has authority to self-accredit, in the case of a university with a specialised focus.”

The benchmark standards for research proposed are:

“research that is ‘world standard’ measured using best practice indicators; and/or

research of national standing in fields specific to Australia, in the case of research that is not easily captured by existing standard indicators.”

The Bill at Schedule 1 item 19 adds a new paragraph 59A that states that TEQSA must have regard to the quality of the research undertaken by the provider when considering the Threshold Standards as they relate to research. It further states that TEQSA may determine how it will assess ‘quality of research’ which has effect only if approved by the Minister.  The Minister’s approval is subject to parliamentary disallowance.

The question of how TEQSA determines whether the current research threshold has not previously been made formal. With the higher thresholds proposed the capacity to set out how the assessment will be done, with scope for scrutiny through the disallowance process, is useful.

The outcome is that for TEQSA to confirm that a university or prospective university meets the research requirements of the standards, it must consider the quality of the research. It provides the opportunity for an explicit framework for this assessment but does not require that this option be taken up.

Any instrument determining what is ‘quality of research’ is subject to disallowance. Disallowance has reasonable efficacy since there is no requirement that there be a determination for TEQSA to assess research quality. This means that disallowance would not prevent decisions, just prevent use of a given set of measures.

IRU members consider that they meet the proposed test of research in fields of education they deliver in.  Assessment of the benchmarks should use the outcomes of the Excellence in Research for Australia exercise as the main guide to world standard research.

Issues not related to the provider categories

In addition to changes related to implementing the recommendations of the 2018 Review of the higher education provider category standards, Schedule 1 of the Bill:

  • simplifies the description of standards to being Threshold Standards;
  • introduces a measure to preserve and protect the academic records of students whose higher education provider has ceased to exist; and
  • makes a small number of other measures intended to strengthen the TEQSA Act’s administration and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s (TEQSA) regulatory role.

These elements of the Bill have IRU support and should not be controversial.

The IRU agrees with the Bill’s aim to pull back to ‘Threshold Standards’ throughout. This is a sensible approach and is a final removal of the initial ideas for TEQSA which left open having standards beyond threshold to recognise better than satisfactory outcomes.

The Bill, Schedule 2, amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to replace references to ‘Indigenous students’ with ‘Indigenous persons’.  This now appears superseded by a parallel change made in the Job Ready Graduates legislation.