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Education and Employment Legislation Committee: Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014

Question
Lee Rhiannon 6 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON: In repealing section 60, it appears that it means that TEQSA would no longer have any authority to review or examine any issue associated with those non-threshold standards. It appears, and this is what I want to get your response to, that under the proposed regulatory framework there is no role for expertise based peer assessment.

Mrs Kristoffersen: I will address the first part of your question first. Currently we operate under the so-called threshold standards which are Provider Course Accreditation Standards and Qualification Standards. In the act there are a number of other standards—Teaching and Learning Standards, Research Standards and Information Standards—that the standards panel is currently developing. There is a draft that is being consulted on at the moment. Our ability to undertake risk assessment is not linked to the non-threshold standards. As the act is currently phrased, it is an ability that allows us to look at a level of quality either for individual providers or for a group of providers. We can do that under the current threshold standards. The non-threshold standards do not exist, so the starting point for the quality assessment of the third-party arrangement was the current threshold standards.

Senator RHIANNON: You are confident that the work can be done. That probably brings us to the issue of resources, such as if it can get done. I know it is not in the bill, but it is relevant to this discussion, with about 41 per cent of your funding going. At the moment—just so that I can understand this, because I do think this is very relevant to the bill in how the work will be done—do you have a backlog of private providers that you are assessing?

Mrs Kristoffersen : As we discussed yesterday, I am not sure how we define the backlog that has been referred to in the review report, but it is clear that there were processes that took a fairly long time beyond the nine months that we had committed to.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, let us take nine months. After nine months is a backlog.

Mrs Kristoffersen : Before I go to the time lines and the time taken, I think it is important as well to note that, when TEQSA were established and the regulatory powers took effect in January 2012, we had only existed for four months and we were developing a number of our processes. We had very few staff on board at that point in time. There is a provision in the act that allows us to give providers a shorter period to submit, and we made use of that to allow us to have our guidelines available to providers so that they could submit their evidence and undertake a reasonable process with TEQSA. Therefore we did have a bottleneck of work that we were pushing in front of us, together with the cases that we inherited from the states and territories, and that has to a large extent affected the time that it has taken for us to finish some of these processes. So that is the backlog. It is really that bottleneck. We are more or less coming to the end of that, while at the same time, with the introduction of the revised processes, we can only see the effects from starting from April this year. Even with some of the older processes in the system we are beginning to see time lines being significantly reduced.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you give me the numbers or take on notice how many have been approved and how many you are considering?

Mrs Kristoffersen : I can give you some of the numbers, and I can take it on notice if you would like to have it in writing as well. I just have to find the right sheet of paper.

Senator RHIANNON: If that is easy.

Mrs Kristoffersen : It is. By 31 May 2014, we have approved eight new providers and so have undertaken eight processes of initial registration, and we have rejected four. We have renewed 45 providers and rejected one. In terms of course accreditation, we have approved 216 new courses and rejected 16, and we have renewed 283 courses.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you provide a breakdown of those by provider and by course? Is that information publicly available?

Mrs Kristoffersen : Not at that level. Both yes and no, because the national register that we are provided to maintain includes our information about all registered providers, their re-registration dates and also the courses that have been accredited by us for those providers without self-accrediting authority. We have introduced a practice of publishing public reports, and these public reports are about all providers except for providers that are seeking initial registration. These reports are available on the national register, and if they are—

Senator KIM CARR: What about the entities that are rejected? Are they publicly known?

Mrs Kristoffersen : Not the providers that are rejected initially, because at that point in time they are not registered providers. That is the only information that is not publicly available.

Senator RHIANNON: That is useful to get an understanding of how the system works and the pressures you are under. With regard to the impact of deregulation on quality-assurance mechanisms, the submission from the NTEU states:

Removing TEQSA's powers to "strengthen and protect" the interests of students once again leaves students without recourse over matters relating to quality …

I have a question about private providers to help inform the committee about how well your system works. Can you tell us: when did TEQSA first receive an application from the Whitehouse Institute of Design for approval to offer a masters of design degree, and how long did the approval process take?

Mrs Kristoffersen : I believe—and I can take on notice to confirm the exact time—that the Whitehouse institute was a registered provider, so there was an end time for the registration and the time for the re-registration. I believe that applications were received in February 2013.

Senator RHIANNON: So you received it in February 2013. How long did the approval process take?

Mrs Kristoffersen : For accreditation of new courses for any new provider, we are under a legislative deadline to make a decision within nine months after receival of the application.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you do it in less than nine months?

Mrs Kristoffersen : In this particular case, I believe that we did it in just short of nine months.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that about the average length of time?

Mrs Kristoffersen : At that point in time for our accreditations and our initial registrations—except for one case, but again I will take it on notice and check the details with the office—but I believe that we have extended the time line in one or two cases beyond the nine months, as the act allows us to do.

Senator RHIANNON: I was also interested in the conditions that you impose and how often that happens. I notice that there is one private provider, Group Colleges Australia, which has more than 50 conditions for its own approval and the approval of three of its courses. Would that be an average number, below average or above average for those conditions?

Mrs Kristoffersen : As I remember, the number of conditions on that particular provider is available on the national register. I think it is three conditions with a number of requirements related to the conditions.

Senator RHIANNON: I had 50 in the material I looked at, so that was wrong. I must have misunderstood.

Mrs Kristoffersen : I will be able to provide you with the details of that, but 50 is definitely not a number that I am familiar with, and it is not a number that we would normally see in terms of conditions imposed.

Senator RHIANNON: So, if a college had 50 conditions, that would be a lot?

Mrs Kristoffersen : That would be a lot.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take that on notice.

Mrs Kristoffersen : I will take it on notice and explain the nature of the conditions. As I think I mentioned previously, there are a number of tools that we can use if there are concerns or if we think about extending course accreditation or registration to the full seven years that we can take. One way of monitoring providers is to impose conditions. We do that by taking the so-called regulatory principles into account because the act requires us to take a proportionate approach in looking at whether a provider either is at risk of future noncompliance with meeting the standards or is not meeting the standards. Therefore, if you have the choice of making an adverse decision and not approving a course or not approving a provider, conditions can be effective tools of ensuring that a provider is given that direction and strengthens its ability to meet the threshold standards.

Senator RHIANNON: So what would a large number of conditions be? If 50 is very unusual, is 10 a large number?

Mrs Kristoffersen : Ten would be a fairly large number.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the relationship between the Higher Education Standards Panel and the Shergold committee? Is that something that you are giving advice on, or can you comment on it, please?

Mrs Kristoffersen : The TEQSA Advisory Council, which is chaired by Peter Shergold, is an outcome of the higher education regulation review and is recommendation 1 or 2, I believe. That has been set up to give advice to the minister on TEQSA and a number of other issues and to give advice to TEQSA as well.

The Higher Education Standards Panel is an independent entity that is included in the TEQSA Act with a specific role to give the minister advice on the standards. The standards panel, when it was set up, was required to initiate a review of the threshold standards within one year after them taking effect.

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