Australian universities to face more competition

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The head of Australia’s higher education regulatory body has warned the country’s universities to brace for more competition, with some “very strong” rivals about to claim the prized mantle of self-accrediting status.

Peter Coaldrake, chief commissioner of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa), said a “significant number” of higher education providers had the “maturity” to warrant self-accrediting authority. “There will be an opportunity for some…to start moving in that direction fairly soon,” he told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in Sydney.

“A definition might typically be a player that’s got established demand, been around for a number of years, finances are secure and so on. Implied in all that is a level of trust which we would…bestow on providers that have developed that record.”

Self-accrediting authority can allow colleges to introduce new programmes without Teqsa’s approval – a huge advantage as the labour market’s rapid evolution spurs a need for new course offerings. At present, this status is enjoyed by all 42 Australian universities but only eight of the other 145 registered higher education providers.

Professor Coaldrake said he did not want “a sector in situ. For goodness’ sake, students don’t think that we operate in a static world. In the next…decade, the bulk of growth in enrolment in higher education probably won’t occur inside the universities but in the higher education players outside the universities, in fields like education [and] allied health.”

Creative disciplines were another example, with two institutions – Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and the nearby Australian Film Television and Radio School – granted university college status last year.

“Many institutions…would look longingly at having those bodies inside the university, because of their sheer excellence,” Professor Coaldrake told the summit. “But neither of those bodies has had the slightest interest in being a university.”

He said the university college category, which currently has four incumbents – all self-accrediting – suited “mature, outstanding players” without big research ambitions. “Excellence in higher education shouldn’t be viewed through a single prism…defined in terms of university education and research,” he told the summit.

The category also suited aspirant universities that were still building their research programmes. Teqsa will consider “many more” institutions’ bids to become university colleges, Professor Coaldrake said.

Libby Hackett, chief executive of the James Martin Institute for Public Policy, questioned whether higher education was best served by large, lookalike universities. But she said regulatory settings were partly to blame.

The “funding framework for universities…drives this behaviour of them all growing in scale and homogeneity, trying to do everything and apply for all the funding that’s available”, she told the summit. “And then we have the audacity to come back and say, ‘They all look the same.’”

Charles Sturt University vice-chancellor Renée Leon said administrators had “very little choice about how you structure a university because of the funding and the regulatory environment”.

“You can’t really be a university unless you’re offering a comprehensive suite of education. And if you’re offering a comprehensive suite of education, you also have to be doing a comprehensive suite of research, or you’re not registered as a university. And you all have to comply with extremely detailed Teqsa regulation in exactly the same way. So there’s not very much room for flexibility.”

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