A Pyne in time sacks five

Tom Gardner became entangled in red tape while investigating this piece.

The role of the national university regulator will be overhauled and its five Commissioners sacked if Parliament passes legislation introduced by Education Minister Christopher Pyne.

This week, Parliament debated a bill that sought to diminish the role of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), established in 2011 with bipartisan support to accredit universities and courses.

One of TEQSA’s functions is to undertake reviews of the higher education sector in order to monitor university quality. Under the proposed changes, these reviews would not be allowed.

Although no reviews have been completed to date, the agency intends to complete two investigations in the near future: one into English language proficiency among students and another into higher education providers, which outsource teaching to third parties.

A Department of Education spokesperson said the internal and external checks carried out by universities render TEQSA’s reviewing capacity unnecessary. “Such assessments can be undertaken through other, better means,” they said.

In the past, university managers including the Dean of UNSW Law School have expressed their disdain for TEQSA. Last week Coalition frontbencher Paul Fletcher said that TEQSA imposed “excessive” regulatory burdens on universities.

“It is no exaggeration to say that TEQSA created enormous frustration in the tertiary sector in the way it was operating, with an extraordinary degree of bureaucratic interventionism,”
he said.

Pyne argued that students would benefit if TEQSA focused more on timely accreditation, as delays in rejecting course or institution accreditation could lead students to enrol in a course or university that may not exist in a few months.

But narrow oversight also risks reducing education quality and disadvantaging students, as the primary mechanism for monitoring tertiary education issues would be removed. The University of Sydney is cautiously supporting the reforms, which it believes could be beneficial for students.

“We believe the best outcome for students is for universities to reduce their red tape so they can direct resources towards teaching and research while still ensuring the system provides students with a quality education,” a University spokesperson said.

However, SRC Education Officer Ridah Hassan is opposed to the proposed amendment, saying universities should not be allowed to self-regulate.

“The TEQSA amendment bill follows the general trend towards the deregulation of the higher education system, which gives individual higher education providers free reign to charge students more while education quality declines due to a lack of funding,” she said.

The ALP has raised doubts about the reforms, criticising the dramatic dismissal of the Commissioners.