Letter from Australia: Three (more) little words

If three little words – provider category standards – are enough to whip up a storm of vested self-interest within the university sector, just see what happens when another three words little words – teaching-only universities – get thrown into the mix.

There appears to be a widespread assumption that current review of provider category standards by former QUT boss Peter Coaldrake will inevitably take a close look at teaching-only universities – and maybe even recommend the introduction of it as a new category.

As I mentioned last week, we currently have 42 universities in Australia. There are five separate categories for universities, of which 40 are in one and one each in two other categories. Two categories have never been used, including one called university college – which was designed to be a stepping stone for aspirational non-university providers, but which has proven insurmountable in terms of expense and time to encourage any aspirant to take the plunge.

Then there are 127 non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) clumped into a single category – and some of them at least would have eyed off the university college label but decided against it.

Following last week’s blog, an extended Twitter debate took place involving some of our finer higher education policy wonks: Andrew Norton, Tim Pitman, Gavin Moodie and Hannah Forsyth.

It was also triggered by a suggestion in the Group of Eight’s submission to the review that a new category should be created that spans vocational education and higher education. Now the suggestion might be slightly opportunistic – the Opposition has announced a major review of post-secondary education should they win the election – and this might get them a few brownie points. And the Go8 has, somewhat counter-intuitively, formed a loose partnership with  TAFE (technical and further education) Directors Australia in an effort to “draw a line in the sand” over the unfair and distorted tertiary education system which is damaging the vocational training sector.

As an article in Fairfax Media in February noted:

The two organisations have declared that their sectors are not competitors and warned that the uncapped, demand-driven system for university funding had damaged TAFE by distorting the tertiary education market.

(It’s worth noting at this stage that a small number of TAFEs deliver higher education and are considered NUHEPs under the current provider category standards. Also a number of universities, mainly in Victoria, are dual sectors – they deliver both TAFE and higher education).

Anyway, the Go8 submission notes there is a dominant view that the Australian higher education sector has “insufficient diversity and specialisation” and the current standards do not promote either.

The Go8 argues that the category standards could “give efficacy to those provider types that deliver across existing boundaries”.

A third sector

Which is where teaching only comes in – a “third sector” that spanned vocational education and training and higher education and which would be teaching intensive.

As Norton pointed out, much of the antipathy towards teaching-only stems from the fact the “uni classification is about [the] status of the staff”. That is research has status, teaching does not. Of course, the vast majority of teaching-only staff are PhDs and early career researchers who have little or no job security and who grab whatever they can, sometimes at numerous universities, in order to pay the bills.

At the same time, a growing number of universities have sought to create a distinct category of teaching-intensive staff which comes with an array of incentives for recognition and promotion that are designed to mirror those of staff who also do research.

Education Department data shows that teaching-only is the only category of academic to have seen significant growth since 2012. Back then there were 12,452 teaching only staff, compared to 15,876 research only and 27,617 teaching and research. By 2017, there were 17,383 teaching only staff, but still only 15,937 research only and 27,680 teaching and research.

So while teaching-only positions are the only growth category in the university workforce, there is an almost visceral dislike of them, as you can see in this article published in The Conversation a couple of years back.

Under the threshold standards, to be able to use the name university in Australia, an institution has to conduct research in three broad areas.

As Gavin Moodie pointed out in The Conversation in 2014 (when all this was being hotly contested thanks to a push to deregulate fees and give private providers equal access to the honey pot):

Even modest research accomplishment adds to institutions’ and academics’ prestige and their ability to attract students. Even less prominent research universities would weaken their competitive position by relinquishing research. Research is important for universities’ marketing.

Deeply unpopular

So all the current brouhaha is whether Coaldrake will recommend a “third sector” or  whether it will be made easier for the higher education providers to access the title of university.

Norton reckons the third sector idea is null and void before it gets a full airing.

I think it is very unlikely that any minister would spend political capital creating a category for which there is little demand and which would trigger a massive panic attack in regional universities.

Indeed. Our regional universities are prone to massive panic attacks – except when it is probably most deserved. (I speak here of the deregulation debacle of 2014-15 during which the Minister had the strident support of regional universities even though they would have been the hardest hit – something I always failed to comprehend).

Universities Australia, for its part, seems glibly unconcerned by the whole provider category standards review, saying all five university categories are “effective and appropriate” even two have never been employed and another two have only one institution each. And while UA agrees that the non-university provider category might be cluttered and ill-defined, it doesn’t have any “particular views about how the higher education provider category might be redesigned.”

What surprises me most about the debate around teaching-only universities is how very little interest or concern is given to what might be in the best interests of students. The discussion is all about status, staff and marketing, but never about students. The odd thing is that despite all the incentives driving students into universities, a not-insignificant number (133,000) still opt to pay full fees plus a 25 per cent loan fee to go to one of the 127 non-university providers. This suggests that should diversity and specialisation be given the room the thrive, students might quickly jump on the bandwagon.

Will Coaldrake suggest a new category of teaching-only university? He has until August to deliver his report and is working closely with Peter Noonan who is running the review of the Australian Qualifications Framework. I suspect that Norton is right and the moral panic that would arise would just too much for a new education minister to bear.

In the meantime, I’m confident there will be a hearty rethink around provider categories. I’m also sure that the ground is shifting under the feet of traditional providers. The AQF review is looking at short courses, microcredentials and other forms of digital disruption and there are some people at least who believe the value of a bachelor degree is on the verge of collapse. Maybe the real value, sometime in the next decade or so, might rest with small agile providers that at the moment are largely overlooked by our policy architecture. Only time will tell.

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