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AUQA and its critic exchange blows over review

Accusations that AQUA was too close to its own review process which was lacking in dispassionate stakeholder input have been strongly rejected by the agency.
Douglas Blackmur, professor in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape and former CEO of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, makes a series of wide-ranging criticisms of the review in the 3 November issue of ***Quality in Higher Education.
Blackmur argued that by proposing the structure, methods and administrative arrangements of the 2006 review, AUQA was too close to it, and should have instead appointed a secretariat to administer it. He also criticises AUQA for not including the public at large among the stakeholders – an indefensible omission in Blackmur’s view, given that the taxpayer directly or indirectly contributes substantially to AUQA’s revenue
“[I] argue that the QUQA review was flawed … to a degree which renders it inadequate as a global exemplar,” Blackmur writes”
Dr David Woodhouse, executive director of AUQA, responded by saying AUQA did not limit the review to the stakeholders it nominated, and kept itself at arm’s length throughout the review. A decision not to call for general submissions was independently made by the review team.
“We could have commissioned a top-end-of-town consulting firm with no particular expertise in higher education to run the show, and paid them big bucks to essentially act as middle person between the experts and AUQA’s owners. I have a somewhat jaundiced view of that sort of process. The other approach – the one AUQA proposed and the ministers endorsed – was to bring together a balanced team of independent experts, not unlike the panels we assemble to conduct our own audits of providers, set up the support arrangements and let them run the show.”
Blackmur is also critical of AUQA’s decision to defer fulfilment of its fourth objective “to report on the relative standards of the Australian higher education system and its QA processes, including their international standing”, and of the review team’s allegedly misplaced sympathy for AUQA in this regard.
Blackmur says the review team’s recommendation that objective 4 be substantially revised or deleted would, if implemented, have undermined a large part of AUQA’s raison d’être: to anticipate and alert the higher education sector to adverse risks to the reputation of Australian universities internationally.
However, Woodhouse argued that AUQA provides universities with a way of judging themselves against their own objectives.
“Our fitness for purpose approach examines how well a provider is meeting the objectives it sets for itself – objectives that vary dramatically from provider to provider: it might be distance education in a regional university, or indigenous education, or research standing. There was no way we could compare one provider with the other until we’d built up a great deal of information and sectoral understanding.”
Woodhouse said the Bradley review implicitly endorsed this cautious approach in its recommendation 23, which proposed new QA arrangements for higher education which “would involve a set of indicators and instruments to directly assess and compare learning outcomes, and a set of formal statements of academic standards by discipline”.
The leader of the AUQA review team, Dr Stephen Jackson of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, said the Blackmur’s view of the approach taken by review team was “at variance with my own recollections of our deliberations”.

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