Higher Ed Watchdog Is Chasing Its Tail


Some years ago a media commentator in the UK described the then government’s welfare policy as a “four-lane highway leading to a cowpat”. Much the same could be said of the ALP government’s policy approach to higher education; that is, if current media commentary is anything to go by. Take for example, the higher education editor of The Australian, Julie Hare, who last week week launched a scathing attack on the government’s policy, describing it variously as “laughable”, “pathetic”, “ridiculous”, and “weird”. 

Other more colorful adjectives have been by used by others to describe the Government’s on-going cuts to university funding – totaling over $4 billion since 2011 – and its unwillingness to acknowledge the pressures arising from its deregulation of the university sector (leading to an additional 150,000 students over the past year in an already over-stretched system). Add to this growing evidence of academic stress and disenchantment, mass casualisation, public anxiety over the quality of education, the volatility of the overseas student market, the emergence of Massive Open On-line Courses, and increasing competition from universities in Europe and North America, and we have all the ingredients for an escalating crisis in higher education.

Worrying though such developments might be, they are made considerably worse by news of the problems beseting the nation’s watchdog on higher education – the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

Not so long along ago – 2010 in fact – its chief advocate, Professor Denise Bradley was forthright in her insistence that the new regulatory body (of which she was the first head) would help ensure improved quality standards at Australian universities. In an interview for the UK’s Times Higher Education, Professor Bradley sought to reassure nervous university chiefs that: “It is perfectly reasonable for people, when you are introducing a new regulator, to be really interested or concerned about whether or not there is going to be more bureaucracy and red tape and not enough attention being paid to quality.”

But such soothing words were accompanied by what for many sounded like a discomforting incursion into university affairs, particularly those deemed “at risk” (mainly outside the elite Group of Eight): “My view would be that the new authority will be all over institutions that appear to be at risk – I think they can expect a great deal more attention than they’re getting in the current arrangements.” Bradley concluded that: “Our aim would be to bring in a set of regulatory arrangements that have an emphasis on getting a good outcome as economically as you can.”  

Yet since 2010 things have not gone according to plan for the regulatory watchdog. Ironically, as reported in last week’s higher education supplement in The Australian, its problems mirror many of those in the university system: workload pressures, excessive bureaucracy and over-centralisation, high staff turnover, questions over professional expertise, and a growing sense of disillusionment among some staff. Despite denials from current commissioner, Carol Nicoll, former staff talked of difficulties in recruiting suitably qualified staff, with heads of some teams often lacking postgraduate qualifications and direct experience of universities. Again, Nicoll disputes such claims and argues that the watchdog has recruited from a “rich and diverse” field of people with experience in other (not necessarily tertiary) regulatory bodies.

Nicoll sheets home the blame for such problems – at least those problems she accepts as such – to “lack of organisation” from the outset. She points in particular to the apparent failure of the relevant government department to pay due regard to the “lot” TEQSA inherited from previous regulators. So concerned was Nicoll about the multifarious challenges of managing the new watchdog that she is said to have once compared the experience to “building the plane while you are flying it”.

There is no doubt that TEQSA’s workload has been formidable, made worse by the reluctance of some universities to submit their paperwork on time. From January 2012 TEQSA has dealt with over 5000 “regulatory items” that mostly involved courses for overseas students, although a small number of outstanding and more substantive matters – mainly to do with course accreditation  and  registration renewal  – remain on the books.

But it’s the internal organisational processes that appear to most trouble former staffers. For instance, one ex-team member noted how interpretations of data by “generalist” public servants – again, some with little direct experience of higher education – are often focussed at the institutional level whereas problems (or “risks”) may be more localised in faculties or schools. Additionally, it is also reported that there are perceptual differences of opinion in terms of level of risks, with the risk team and those concerned with regulation and review coming up with different assessments, depending on the level and nature of contact they have with individual institutions.

Despite such problems there is considerable support for the work of TEQSA which is widely viewed in the sector and beyond as an evolving enterprise that has already achieved a lot in terms of identifying certain risks, especially in relation to courses for overseas students and language courses. However, the internal problems identified by former staffers and admitted (to some extent) by the current commissioner are in many ways reflective of the chaos and lack of planning that characterises the entire system of Australian higher education. If the government-appointed watchdog finds it difficult to organise and administer its own affairs then what, one wonders, does this say about the government’s overall approach to university education.

Or, perhaps we need another regulator to regulate the government watchdog?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.