Tuesday February 22, 2011
A tertiary education regulator will directly involve a government agency in academic affairs for the first time. It puts much at risk. UNIVERSITIES and academics have long complained about excessive government bureaucracy. There is seemingly endless paperwork involved in applying for money, complying with conditions, and reporting on activities. Yet governments have had a very light touch on what universities teach. Academic matters have been an island of laissez-faire in a sea of regulation.But we may be in our last months of this state of affairs. On the list of bills to be introduced in the autumn session of federal parliament is one establishing a new national higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).The precise details of the legislation have been kept secret. The bill has been shown only to select people on condition that its contents not be disclosed. But the broad outline of the agency's role is known from past statements by the government and TEQSA's interim leadership.The agency will overturn a relationship between the state and universities that has existed for more than 150 years. Universities are established by state governments, but governments do not set the curriculum. Under the idea of academic freedom, universities have the right to set their own courses and standards. Academic boards, supervised by university governing bodies, provide quality control. Under TEQSA, universities would still self-accredit, but within academic standards set by the agency. For the first time, a government agency would become directly involved in academic affairs.The federal government promises that this will not be heavy interference. It recognises that discipline expertise is in the higher education sector, and not in government. The standards will be about learning outcomes, what a graduate in a particular field would be expected to know. They will not be about the detail of teaching methods or curriculum.A standards-setting process commenced under the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, which was to be abolished to help pay for flood damage. Through this voluntary mechanism, a discussion about standards may have some value. It continues the interaction between universities and the professions that already informs course content and standards. The council secured a consensus on standards among academics and other experts in six disciplines, with more in the pipeline.It is what comes next that is the problem. Creating a legal mechanism for controlling academic matters will attract a steady stream of people with ideas about what they think universities should teach.In recent years we have seen examples of what might happen. In 2008, a Senate inquiry looked into claims of academic bias at universities. Left-wing academics in arts faculties were a particular concern for Coalition senators. Their minority report called for "more rigorous oversight of teaching performance, with specific attention to the need to reflect balance in both teaching and course materials".The senators stopped short of calling for more government regulation, instead suggesting that universities could do more to limit bias. But next time, when there is a power that could be used, they may not be so constrained.The following year, the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council was reported as suggesting that all university students and staff be required to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. A power to prescribe academic outcomes will attract interest and advocacy groups, each promoting causes they think should be put to students.The TEQSA path to academic standards is one that could too easily lead to universities going the way of schools, where the curriculum becomes another battleground for the political conflicts of the day, and in which diversity and experimentation is lost in a quest for unnecessary "national consistency".Our current system provides no firm guarantees that all subjects or courses are of high quality, the core concerns behind TEQSA. But it does protect against political agendas and faddish ideas. The choice between the current system and TEQSA is a choice between the hazards of local flaws and the dangers of national mistakes. The agency poses risks that are not worth taking.Andrew Norton is a research fellow with the Centre for Independent Studies.