The roll call of Australian universities has gotten longer. On 1 July, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the Education Minister, Alan Tudge, announced that the former Avondale University College is now an “Australian university”.
Three other institutions, the National Institute of Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), and Moore Theological College, also acquired new classifications: they are now “university colleges”.
The announcement prompts two questions. Do these terms still mean what they have generally been understood to mean, and what are the consequences for Australia’s higher education system if they do not?
The Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) Act 2021 sets out defining criteria for the institutions regulated by TEQSA, including the level of research activity an institution must conduct if it is to be classified as a university.
The Act built on the review of the higher education provider category standards by Professor Peter Coaldrake, who is now chief commissioner of TEQSA.
Or at least, so the Government claimed when the legislation was introduced. The review, however, proposed the new term “national institute of higher education” – a nomenclature change broadly supported in the sector – instead of the existing but ambivalent label “university college”.
“University college” already had a clear meaning in Australian higher education – as a satellite operation of an existing university, preliminary to achieving independent status in its own right. It’s how many of our esteemed regional universities began.
Most higher education policy experts argued that the recycling of this term blurs the distinction between universities and other higher education providers. But the Government pushed the name change through anyway, on the recommendation of nobody.
A university college offers a high standard of teaching and learning, but not necessarily the level of research intensity that the Act also stipulates as the minimum required for university status.
So, does Avondale University conduct sufficient high-quality research to justify its new status?
The short answer, obviously, is that the national regulator evidently believes that it does. It is fair to ask TEQSA and Professor Coaldrake, however, how they came to that decision.
In science it is commonly remarked that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The creation of a new university in this country is a rare event indeed, and the public is entitled to know more about TEQSA’s rationale. “Trust us” just doesn’t cut it.
Avondale has not yet been through a round of assessment under Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), the metric applied by the Australian Research Council.
According to information posted on its website, Avondale offers PhD and MPhil degrees as jointly conferred degrees with Charles Sturt University, and that research specialisations can be in “Education, Arts, Nursing, Ministry and Theology”.
This tells us that some research is being done, but that is all it tells us. Similar announcements on the website about degrees offered in association with other institutions – a University of Newcastle BSc with some units studied at Avondale, for example – are also vague.
Given the unease in the sector about the long-term implications of changes in the higher education provider standards, TEQSA should set out explicitly its reasons for granting Avondale university status. Not only with regard to the breadth of research, but to its quality.
It is a fair question. Australia has not been overwhelmed with stories of Avondale’s cutting-edge contributions to new knowledge. Avondale’s new status implies they are already operating at a level comparable to our existing universities. Frankly, I am sceptical.
A similar question can be asked about the three new university colleges. There is no doubt that NIDA and the AFTRS both have high international recognition and acclaim, and Moore Theological College is a long-established institution of scholarly repute.
The issue is why any of these institutions needed the rubbery “university college” label to add to their lustre. As Professor Coaldrake has conceded, there as yet are no tangible benefits, such as access to the Commonweath Grants Scheme, in becoming a university college.
Professor Coaldrake is reported to have said that all four institutions included in the 1 July announcement had acquired their new statuses because of their “exceptional teaching quality, student outcomes, developing research profiles, and their contribution to their communities”.
This is the traditional threefold description of the activities that characterise universities: research, teaching and learning, and civic engagement.
Avondale has a 124-year history and has expanded beyond its origins as a Seventh Day Adventist bible college. But has its “developing research profile” already brought it into line with what happens in other Australian universities, as its new status entails?
The next ERA round, due in 2023, will help answer that question. But until then, TEQSA should be more forthcoming about its reasons for upgrading Avondale’s classification.
“University” is a title that must never be bestowed lightly. The standing of Australian universities, among their peer institutions around the world and in the eyes of the Australian people, depends on it.