Who Needs Standards?

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It’s early 2008 and submissions are piled high on a table in a room in Canberra. Professor Denise Bradley, then chair of the 2008 Review of Higher Education, poses the question to her colleagues on the review board: "The Australian University Quality Agency seems all good and well, it produces a lot of reports, but what does it actually DO?"

As became apparent, the magic had finally broken, and death knell was sounded for the Australian University Quality Agency (AUQA), established early 2000. A toothless shark, the agency could critique, criticise, or even condemn a university in writing — and then it would move on, unable to do anything after reporting.

When the Bradley Review was released later in 2008, it recommended a new national body for standards, quality assurance, and accreditation of national bodies. Many words have been typed since about this mythical beast — "AUQA with teeth" — as legislation was drafted, discussed, and then quickly revised until all the stakeholders that will fall under the new domain were placated.

Last week, universities, staff and students finally saw what form the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) will take — and for the most part, they were underwhelmed.

The declared purpose of TEQSA was that there would be standards enshrined within the legislation to ensure not only quality control of the institutions of high risk, the private colleges, but that low risk providers, the public universities, would be held accountable to maintain the quality expected of them. However, the most recent revision of the legislation suggests that universities will not undergo scrutiny significantly different to that from AUQA.

The concerns of student organisations were recorded in The Australian on Friday, highlighting that wording had been softened, particularly on the push for smaller classes for students engaged in Masters degrees by coursework. Student organisations believe that universities have the right to their autonomy, but there are some key oversights that need to be in place.

Such concerns about the shortcomings of TEQSA do not give hope to student organisations on the Base Funding Review, which is currently underway. It is well known that the university sector is underfunded, but a lack of good oversight by AUQA has been part of the slippage. It is the hope of the student organisations that, partnered with a strong TEQSA to uphold high standards, desperately needed additional funding will be made available to the sector.

Previous reviews of higher education funding have met with mixed results. When Dawkins introduced HECS in the late 80s, he saw it as a way to ensure continued growth in the sector at a time when the government didn’t have the ability to expand funding. The Howard government then increased HECS, based around the concept of National Priorities and ranked based on profession. Ultimately, neither of these major revisions of HECS adequately considered the actual cost of delivery, or the public as opposed to private benefits of higher education.

Take two students: Both complete a Bachelor of Medicine at one of the nation’s top medical schools, both on HECS. One uses these skills and goes off to become a highly successful cosmetic surgeon who specialises in elective surgery for a wealthy clientele. The other decides to spend a few years working with Médecins Sans Frontières before returning to run a small country practice in rural Australia with bulk billing. Both of these graduates will stand to profit as doctors, but should the latter pay back the same amount for their degree as the former? Currently, both owe the government the same amount of money.  This hypothesis was put to the Base Funding Review panel, led by Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, last week, as part of an examination of how further education should be funded and how private contributions should be balanced against public benefit.

In addition to the private contributions, the funding of the sector needs to consider student satisfaction, particularly for postgraduate degrees. Citing research from 2005, Denise Bradley informed those gathered at the Universities Australia conference in 2009 that student satisfaction showed immediate improvement when staff/student ratios went down. Smaller class sizes can only be achieved through increased funding. At this time, students doing a Masters degree get the same per capita funding as a student doing a Bachelors — which restricts the ability of a university provide the highest quality postgraduate experience, which should include small classes.

Further, following changes to legislation which mean there are no longer any full fee-paying domestic undergraduate places, several universities have attempted to "rebadge" undergraduate degrees as postgraduate to allow for the charging of fees. A strong TEQSA should ensure that such rebadging does not occur, and that legitimate postgraduate-level courses are offered.

A key concern for student advocates regarding the Base Funding Review is the "Titanic outcome": that is, thrusting more burden onto students without increasing the total amount of funding available for higher education. There’s an argument to be settled about the proportion of tertiary education students should pay for but as it stand, the total pool of funding available to universities is insufficient. Costs for education increased, but at the same time funding was decreasing in real terms for nearly two decades. With a government that has been so relentlessly pushing students to achieve their best — to not only undertake a bachelors degree but to return for a Masters degree — the rhetoric needs to match the demands of the sector in terms of support and funding.

Increasing the total pool of funding will be crucial to helping Australia achieve better results, whether they be in the Excellence in Research Australia rankings, in international rankings, or to stop the often moaned about "brain drain". And a well-funded sector is able to achieve higher national standards and quality in the delivery of a degree, overseen by a good regulatory body.

We can only achieve an equitable education system with good standards and quality assurance if we are prepared to fund it sustainably and provide oversight with a strong TEQSA. And we need a full review of the way universities are funded to keep these standards high. Denise Bradley and the panel were right in seeking to establish both TEQSA and undertaking the long-overdue Base Funding Review to improve higher education in Australia — and the government must be held to ensure their implementation.

 

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