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Lee Dow on TEQSA reform

2 March 2014

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KwongProfessor Kwong Lee Dow who, with Professor Valerie Braithwaite, undertook the review of higher education regulation, provided The Scan with the following comments on government legislation to restructure and refocus the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Given that the Bill follows the recommendations which our Review had prepared for the previous government, it is not surprising that I am in agreement with the key elements of the Bill.

A starting point is the decision to amend the current Act, and not to start afresh through abolition and the creation then of a new body.  It implies, of course, that some or much of the current momentum continues, though signficantly modified.

That is my position too.

We need a single national regulator for higher education. That is widely agreed. The one we have took two and a half years of policy formulation, drafting and reworking legislation and setting up an ongoing organisation. There’s no point in redoing all that, hoping to start in 2016! Moreover, the sector seems supportive of this, as judged by our submissions, interviews and meetings.

The most fundamental change is to shed the quality assessments, and thereby the broader quality assurance function, and so to focus on core regulation. I acknowledge the importance of encouraging continuous improvement and so keeping quality assurance issues in front of institutions and their people. That remains a top order issue, but it is not feasible for the regulator to do justice to it, given its other commitments, the timing required to discharge those commitments with proper dispatch, and the kind of staff needed to give confidence to institutions that quality assurance is understood by the regulator. Quality improvement and so assurance requires peer review, often at a course level, and a different approach to that required for hard edged regulatory decisions about whether institutions and their offerings meet minimal standards.

The next most fundamental change is in the conception of the Commission itself, its relation to its staff and the relation of both to the institutions.

Though the Review did not explicity recommend it, the separation between Chief Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer is a valuable advance, in my view.  It reaffirms the well recognised lines of separation and linkage between a governance board and its staff. The Chief Commissioner then chairs and leads the Commission members in the formulation of policy and priorities. The Chief Executive Officer is responsible for staff, staffing decisions, recommendations to the Commission and is answerable to the Commission. Not only should this prove a transparent clarification of roles, it should in time lead to improved efficiency of the organisation overall.

Given that split, it makes sense to ‘spill’ the five Commissioner positions, all of them, so a refashioned membership can take account of the range of needs and how best that might be accomplished.

I do not read this as casting negative assessments on the individuals who have worked conscientiously as Commissioners over the last two years. Their job has not been easy, sometimes not understood and appreciated outside the Commission itself, and the chance for (partially) a fresh start should be helpful all round.

Our view last year was that the Commission itself was top heavy, and we thought a reduction in the number of Commissioners to be desirable. The end goal can be achieved in more ways than one, given part time memberships, and this key separation from the CEO role. The legislation keeps options open, and I support that and the way it has been drawn.

My final comment is that the legislation cannot be expected to clarify the relative time and effort to be put into work with existing established institutions of standing in the community, and the need to assist, support but, if necessary, deny less secure institutions, which are sometimes relatively new in the field of higher education, and relatively small. The balance may change over time, but there is evidence to believe the Government would wish more effort expended with this second group.

Universities especially, are being encouraged by government to take more responsibility for their own futures, standing and standards. The regulator should take that into account, as there are plenty other ways that the effectiveness of autonomy for these institutions can be monitored and acted upon.

See

TEQSA shake up

 28 February 2014

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The government has introduced a bill to radically restructure the national higher education regulatory agency.

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