Accreditation delays hold up innovation

The initial slow regulatory process by TEQSA and ASQA has put private providers at disadvantage compared with public institutions. By John Wood.
 There is considerable dialogue at present around the impact of the new regulatory regimes in higher education and vocational education and training (VET) and significant concern about what this means for individual providers.
This is of course to be expected until the new bodies, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) have had time to establish themselves.
Since Federation in 1901 education has remained a state power. At its core, Federation was designed to create a common market for goods throughout the Australian colonies. Yet it was not until recently that the notion of a national market for education could be imagined. The nationalisation of education is now not only possible but also considered by many to be desirable.
The introduction of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) in 1995 was recognition of the changing demands on providers. The AQF enabled private providers to enunciate the quality and rigorous standards they adhered to, and provided a solid reputational foundation, especially valuable in the recruitment of international students. The recent revision of the AQF and the introduction of TEQSA and ASQA now compel all institutions, whether they are private or public, to ensure their programs more closely reflect the AQF.
The introduction of TEQSA and ASQA represent the micro-economic reform of the regulatory sector in relation to education. If implemented correctly, these bodies provide a rare opportunity to benefit from economies of scale and create greater efficiency in education regulation and provision by using a national rather than state-based approach.
The new TEQSA and ASQA standards which are still evolving are very detailed and include considerable differences. Significantly, the VET sector includes about 5000 registered training organisations (RTOs) and is considerably more market driven than the higher education sector, which includes about 200 largely self-regulating and autonomous providers.
The introduction of TEQSA and ASQA represents recognition of the growth and change in VET and higher education, however, at a time when both sectors are experiencing increased marketisation. At their core, TEQSA and ASQA share a vital similarity and that is their aspiration of embedding the AQF more firmly into both education sectors, no matter how far down the path to marketisation they are.
It is hoped the creation of these national bodies and the maturation of the education industry in general will enable the sector to work together more closely in overcoming barriers to success. This is especially true for international education.
As a provider that operates nationally, Navitas expects the formation of TEQSA and ASQA will create efficiencies by simplifying and standardising registration and accreditation process nationally. Initial indications are concerning, however, especially the processing times for the accreditation of programs (TEQSA has set an expectation of a minimum of nine months).
Indeed the “risk-based and proportionate” approach is an opportunity upon which TESQA and ASQA may wish to reflect further. The possibility of 21 months for the accreditation of programs and setting expectations at nine months as a minimum for higher education programs is frankly soul destroying for many providers.
Our expectations for national accreditation were that things would get better, quicker. Unfortunately this is not the case thus far, and this puts private providers at an even greater disadvantage. In Western Australia, for example, we used to rely on a six month (re) accreditation cycle. To see that extended by 50 per cent minimum puts private providers further behind public institutions.
 When one includes the additional time required for registration, marketing and recruitment for the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students, some university courses would have commenced, recruited and perhaps gone through at least a minor review in the time it takes a private provider to enroll a student in a new course.
If we want an innovative and dynamic tertiary sector, a minimum nine-month lag places private providers at a very real disadvantage to public institutions in terms of new course development. At a time when higher education innovation is flourishing globally, regulatory delays significantly limit the flexibility and fluidity which is so crucial to encouraging competition within the sector.
Without careful implementation, the operation of a national framework has the potential to stifle the further development of the education industry. The education sector must be allowed to continue to grow and change organically; otherwise ultimately it will be the students who miss out.
Those responsible for implementing TEQSA and ASQA must temper the need to regulate and standardise with the necessity to innovate and progress. It would be disappointing if the Australian education industry, which has led the world in many ways, is no longer able to innovate as it has so successfully done in the past 50 years.
Professor John Wood is the executive general manager, university programs, at Navitas, where he has overall responsibility for 30 pathway colleges around the world.

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