The Australian | 20 June 2013
Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University and one of the architects of the higher education regulatory framework told a policy seminar that the problems with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency have resulted from significant flaws in design and process during the formulation of the legislation, rather than problems with the agency itself.
The one-size fits all approach of the legislation failed to recognise the “special” characteristics of universities that underpin their greater autonomy compared with other providers.
He said the “negative tone” and “negative psychology” of the legislation encouraged an “almost anal” regulatory philosophy at TEQSA that stressed its role as a risk regulator at the expense of its wider role to “foster” quality.
You get a legislative psychology in the act that is essentially negative, essentially enforcing, essentially not calibrated to the promotion of quality but to the elimination of risk.
He said following on from the negative psychology of the legislation, the “style” and “rhetoric” of the agency had been problematic.
It is often not the case that what TEQSA is doing is highly problematic, but that the rhetoric surrounding it can be problematic. And that is a real difficulty that has emerged.
In considering how current legislation could be improved, Craven said he favoured the concept of “earned autonomy” being introduced into the legislation covering the national regulator, as suggested by tertiary education minister Craig Emerson when he recently announced a review of red tape in regulation and compliance.
Autonomy for universities should ideally form a separate part of the legislation, effectively introducing a “mini universities act. As such, it would define not only what autonomy is but also set out the unique characteristics of universities that justified that autonomy. Along with research, it might include the collegiate governance structures that is a distinguishing feature of universities.
But he said it would be a “catastrophic” mistake to not include all universities under the umbrella of “earned autonomy”, saying what defines one is shared by all regardless of their standing in relation to each other.
Research performance is no basis to judge whether a university is more or less likely to breach regulations, he said. University status under the act would be open to newcomers which could meet all the criteria to justify its being called a university. At the same time, if a university failed to meet its obligations then it should be at risk of losing its autonomy and status.
Just as all cows are cows, all universities are universities, and bad cows are slaughtered.
He said the “negative” psychology of regulator could ideally be overcome by folding TEQSA into a resuscitated independent commission.
It would (then) not be a lonely regulator with a lonely regulatory psychology stranded like some savage shag on a rock. It would be part of a holistic system for the promotion of higher education, including universities, with a wider psychology that inoculated and informed all its decisions. I think that would be the best thing that could happen for TEQSA as well as for the sector itself.