05 August 2013

TEQSA and the Dow Report

Australian Government has released the report [PDF] of the Independent Review of Higher Education Regulation, meant "to ensure an optimal balance is reached that maximises the quality of higher education and transparency while minimising red tape burden".

The review was undertaken by Professor Kwong Lee Dow AO (former Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne) and Professor Valerie Braithwaite of the Regulatory Institutions Network at the ANU.

The Executive Summary states that -
Today, more Australians than ever, particularly those from lower socio-economic status backgrounds are participating in higher education. All the while, Australia continues to maintain its outstanding reputation for delivering quality education.
Our educational institutions, on the whole, comprise people at all levels committed to ensuring quality and striving for excellence for their students and in support of the Australian community and economy more generally. In an increasingly competitive and global education market, it is crucial that Australia continues to demonstrate and further develop the quality of its higher education sector. To ensure Australia’s ongoing competiveness, an effective regulator is a necessary and crucial component of the higher education regulatory architecture.
This review was established to address concerns raised by the sector about the effectiveness of Australia’s higher education regulatory framework. We have concluded that having one body responsible for compliance and monitoring such as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is crucial to maintaining the quality of Australia’s higher education sector. Moreover, we have found wide and continued support for the role of a national higher education regulator. However, TEQSA faces challenges which require action. Some of these challenges are a by-product of the higher education architecture and indeed the legislation underpinning regulation, while others are a result of TEQSA’s regulatory approach. To address these, a range of reforms are recommended that aim to improve both the broader regulatory architecture and the regulatory approach currently implemented by TEQSA.
The design of Australia’s regulatory architecture ensures that only quality providers are able to enter and remain in the system. Having a qualifications framework, higher education standards and a national regulator encompasses best practice principles of regulation. However, how they engage with each other will determine how well the ultimate aim of continuous quality improvement will eventuate.
TEQSA was established in an already crowded regulatory environment. The higher education regulatory community is multi-layered and diffused. Having placed TEQSA into this environment it appears that many legislative intersections do not support its mandate. TEQSA’s establishment has also identified that changes to other entities may be necessary to streamline the regulatory framework.
The regulatory principles of necessity, risk, and proportionality embedded in the TEQSA Act were included to ensure that the focus of TEQSA’s activities did not unnecessarily burden existing high quality providers. However, TEQSA’s legislation does not appear to be operating in the manner intended by Government or the sector. This is largely due to the lack of relationships in TEQSA’s governance and structure. Our recommendations therefore seek to build and improve relationships between the regulatory community.
Our recommendations are centred on what TEQSA should be delivering as a regulator in the current environment to build the future direction of Australia’s regulatory framework.
We believe that the aspects of quality assurance and best practice currently undertaken by TEQSA are better identified and delivered through other means already in place in the regulatory community.
There are many ways to make this happen. Therefore we recommend that to re-focus TEQSA’s effort and approach, its functions should be reduced so as to improve its timely delivery of its most important tasks – provider registration and course accreditation.
In a sector comprised of many self-accrediting institutions with high degrees of autonomy, the notion of ‘earned autonomy’ is an interesting one. We believe that the principles of regulatory necessity, risk and proportionality when applied in line with the Government’s intention, support a high degree of autonomy which supports the aspiration from the sector and government for light touch regulation across the sector.
We also considered to what extent the regulatory architecture was appropriately engaged and able to work together. It appears that often the legislative intersections are applied in isolation and underpin unnecessarily repetitive reporting requirements. The changing nature of tertiary education and the increasing number of multi-sector providers demands more effective and efficient application of regulatory requirements.
While work on aligning and restructuring legislative requirements should be commenced now, in the interim, the duplication of requirements could be compensated for by establishing transparent relationships between the respective entities. If responsibilities can be clarified and trust extended, then some activities could be reduced by one agency recognising the work of another. For this to happen, we need improved communication, consultation and collaboration. The Government must consider how these are implemented - whether through enforceable requirements or more informally. We recommend as an initial approach that non-statutory arrangements for advisory groups be enforced through clear and transparent memorandums of understanding.
Ultimately, our recommendations are to require wherever possible that consideration is actively given to aligning and streamlining regulatory activities and reporting. As the report identifies, the sector has been constantly at the behest of disruptions that steer the flow of events. And there are more to come. The respective reviews of standards, VET and higher education, have the capacity for further significant disruption and it is with these in mind, that we recommend that the Government align the work of individual entities to improve the efficiency of providers and ensure consistent protections for students.
This goal also applies to the Government and the work of its department/s. We acknowledge the initiatives already underway to reduce the reporting burden for providers. But these alone are not enough. The National Advisory Group for Higher Education Data and Information is a good start. To bring about the whole of architecture improvements required for the tertiary education sector, we recommend that greater impetus is given to further simplifying and, streamlining regulation towards one tertiary sector.
The report notes that
We began this review in late May 2013. Along the way through our conversations and the many thoughtful submissions, we gave serious consideration to whether Australia continues to need TEQSA. Looking back, we are of the view that TEQSA’s establishment came at a time in which a different future was imagined. This future was based on assumptions that there would be many more new providers entering the higher education sector and that the market would be responding to quite different forces such as student choices and the international market. Notwithstanding the many changes taking place in higher education including new forms of delivery and structural responses such as those planned for Central Queensland University or the University of Canberra, we nevertheless see less regulatory risks emerging in higher education that would be managed centrally, particularly among established providers.
Throughout the review we have also been reminded of the ambitions that the Government and stakeholders had for TEQSA and have come to the following key conclusions: there is support for a national regulator. No one suggested returning to eight systems of provider registration for the non self-accrediting sector. The consensus which we fully support is the unambiguous need for a national regulator.
The regulatory world that we imagine for the future is one in which providers are primarily self regulating. The regulator in this world has clear goals to manage the entry of new providers to the market and checks in on any difficulties emerging for the sector as identified by the regulatory community. This would be a regulator that ensures new entrants to the sector understand and meet the requirements to be an Australian higher education provider based on clear standards. It is not a regulator that stifles innovation or limits niche providers in preference for larger institutions and universities. It is a regulator that is responsive to its sector.
We have concluded that TEQSA plays an important national and international role in asserting and maintaining the quality of Australia’s higher education system which needs to be retained. We note TEQSA itself in reflecting on its regulatory practice in recent times has signalled some changes in direction and we welcome these. Nevertheless, the question for us has evolved to how to shape TEQSA’s mandate in a way which ensures its resilience and relevance in higher education into the future.
The recommendations are
1. The Government should reduce TEQSA’s functions to focus on its core activities as a regulator; to reduce the number of Commissioners over time and revise their roles and responsibilities to allow greater decision making-responsibilities to be assigned to case managers or other TEQSA staff as appropriate;
2. The Government should establish mechanisms for TEQSA to consult with stakeholders and receive sector advice; for example by creating an overarching advisory council with stakeholder representatives and subject experts. Such a council could also provide advice to the Minister on how TEQSA is progressing against its Strategic Plan;
3. TEQSA should detail how the principles of risk, necessity and proportionality apply to different types of providers, for example, publicly funded institutions, for profit providers and/or not-for-profit. This could be effected through a set of legislative guidelines.
4. TEQSA should identify how existing regulatory processes such as Mission-based Compacts, funding agreements and the Institutional Performance Portfolios could be used to streamline the re registration processes for established providers;
5. TEQSA should prioritise improved timeliness in delivering TEQSA’s key activities of initial provider registration and course accreditation. This could be effected through a Ministerial direction to the TEQSA CEO regarding allocation of resources.
6. The Government must reduce duplication across within the regulatory architecture by requiring specific consideration of how any matter in question, for example the ESOS National Code, aligns with its other regulatory components and partners. This could be enacted through structured MoU and letters of arrangements between TEQSA, the department and other regulatory bodies to cover such items as: o Financial viability assessments for providers approved under HESA; o Risk assessment priorities; o Consultation forums.
7. The Government must align better the work of existing players, such as the Higher Education Standards Panel and the Australian Qualifications Framework Council and how they are structured to support a quality tertiary education system. Government also needs to address and manage concerns for the sector regarding the role of the AQF and the outcomes of the review of higher education standards in a way which usefully guides their implementation by higher education providers in support of a quality system.
8. The Government must reduce duplication between the four Acts. This could be commenced by formalising, and extending the roles of information sharing / policy advisory groups, such as NAGHEDI, the tertiary education standards setting agencies and meetings of the regulators and the department. Any requirements related to the business nature of providers must be considered against the principle of ‘collect once, use multiple times’, such as: o Corporate governance; and o Financial reporting.
9. The Government must identify and agree the alignment of activities between the Acts with ASQA and TEQSA that can be undertaken (i) without legislative change; and (ii) with legislative change, such as: o Improving information sharing provisions through identifying what data and information is available and how constraints are applied o Aligning the registration periods; penalty processing, nature and format of national registers and fee structures; and o Assigning responsibility for registering dual sector providers, fit and proper persons, and financial viability assessments.
10. The Government engage with TEQSA to agree where duplication, reporting or otherwise, can be addressed immediately; and
11. The Government identify as soon as possible how NAGHEDI’s role can be formalised and strengthened with the aim of creating a single national higher education data collection agency; and include a role for NAGHEDI as the data clearinghouse / survey advisory body for TEQSA.