Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency
13 February 2013
Senator RHIANNON: Last year hundreds of academics at the University of Sydney had to justify their teaching positions under new research performance standards. Did TEQSA monitor this development?
Dr Nicoll : No, we did not.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you monitor situations at universities that can impact on the quality of the work being undertaken by the academics?
Dr Nicoll : We have a responsibility for monitoring all higher education providers against the threshold standards, and certainly they go to quality issues. There are a range of ways that we look at that. So the answer is yes, we do, but, when it comes to an individual issue relating to industrial relations within an institution, we do not get involved in that.
Senator RHIANNON: I did not actually ask about getting involved in the issue; it was monitoring it in terms of the impact on the work that is undertaken and on the standards.
Dr Nicoll : We collect data that we take, in relation to the universities, from the department from the Higher Education Information Management System, which the universities give to the department. There are a range of data there that we look at. They include issues in relation to proportions of academic staff and the proportion of casual staff that there may be in an institution, because we see some of those as possible indicators of issues in relation to quality. They may trigger us to have a broader discussion with an institution, but that would have to be a serious issue and something which we believed was causing some question in terms of risks to the provider and risks to the students in terms of learning outcomes.
Senator RHIANNON: I did note that Sydney university's draft enterprise agreement subsequently did remove many workplace conditions and limited the ability of some academics to undertake research. I was interested in whether that triggered a broader discussion, as you have just mentioned. With the next national round of university enterprise agreements now rolling out as I understand, how do teachers' staff conditions intersect with TEQSA's concerns about the quality of teaching and learning?
Dr Nicoll : We do not look at it in its own right. What we look at is how the provider meets the threshold standards. If there were issues that led us to question the capacity of a provider in meeting the threshold standards because of some issue with staffing then yes, we would have a look at that and we may have a conversation with the university. But, as a general issue, we would not look at that.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that industrial relations conditions, like the conditions of the staff at work, are not something that impacts on the threshold standards?
Dr Nicoll : I would have to look at how that would be the case, but prima facie we do not look at the industrial issues in regards to a provider.
Senator RHIANNON: What would result in you looking at it? Again, I go back to the issue of Sydney university, when initially this was impacting hundreds of staff—and, after objections from the staff, I understand that it did not impact on so many staff, but it was a very controversial issue which seems to go to the heart of the standards of the university. How much needs to happen to trigger a broad discussion for yourself?
Dr Nicoll : We would need some evidence that there was a question of some breach of the threshold standards and that there was a question of there being an issue in relation to the quality of the learning experience. Unless we see that as a serious issue, the management of industrial relations within a provider is clearly an issue for management and something that we will stay out of.
Senator RHIANNON: So you have just said that you would need to see some evidence that it is impacting on the quality of the learning experience. Could you expand on what you mean by 'some evidence'. Do you mean that somebody has to give it to you? If so, in what form? Or is it up to you to be keeping a watching brief on these developments.
Dr Nicoll : The university—any university—will come up for re-registration at some point in the cycle of the coming seven years. We will look at how a provider meets the threshold standards at that point—in the re-registration process. That would be one point. If there was serious evidence that suggested to us a breach or a possible breach of the threshold standards then we will clearly have a conversation with a provider. If it is so serious, we may go further than a conversation and go to an inquiry or an investigation.
Senator RHIANNON: I come back to the one about serious evidence. What does 'serious evidence' mean for you? Is it something that you actively collect, or is it up to some third party to present something to you? If the latter is the case, what do they need to give you and in what form?
Dr Nicoll : I cannot speculate unless I have a particular instance before me. It is something we will look at on a case by case basis. I do not think there is any, as they say, cookie cutter approach to this. We will look at it case by case.
Senator RHIANNON: You just spoke about re-registration. At the point of re-registration, do you look at the conditions under which the staff are employed, any changes that have occurred, how that is impacting on the work they undertake, which is obviously so critical to the learning experience?
Dr Nicoll : We will look at all activities in relation to the threshold standards. If you look at the threshold standards, Senator, you will be able to see whether there is any possibility, in terms of what you have described, for them to fit in. If we had evidence that came up through a compliance assessment or a re-registration that went to those issues, we would look at them at that point.
Senator RHIANNON: Is there any work being undertaken on how teaching, research and publishing of papers within a single academic position affects the quality and currency of academic knowledge and teaching?
Dr Nicoll : No, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: That is not something you look at, or it does not come under your brief?
Dr Nicoll : It is not something we are looking at.
Senator RHIANNON: And it does not come under your brief?
Dr Nicoll : In the case of a university and how it meets the category standards of a university is certainly an issue for us, but what you have described per se would not necessarily be something we would pursue.
Senator RHIANNON: I want to go to that favourite acronym of everyone's, the MOOC. During the last estimates, it was indicated that TEQSA had been speaking with some vice-chancellors about the massively open online courses and about developing approaches and guidelines on this. Also, as I remember, the minister indicated that the department was sponsoring a symposium on it. Could you update us on that work, please?
Dr Nicoll : Senator, you would have to ask the department. I believe it was through the Office for Learning and Teaching that they sponsored an event. I think the officers have gone—yes, they have; so, I am sorry, they are not here to give an overview. There was an event held. It was well subscribed. There was keen interest in terms of the implications. TEQSA will continue to monitor the way MOOCs is taken up or not by the higher education sector in Australia. We believe that there is sufficient flexibility in the threshold standards for those sorts of innovative developments to occur.
Senator RHIANNON: You are monitoring it at the moment?
Dr Nicoll : Like many other developments in terms of innovation in higher education, we are certainly keeping an eye on it—yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Again, going back to my question from a previous estimates that I had understood you had been talking to vice-chancellors, is there some coordination with regard to standards there? Is it just a watching brief and you are not actually working on any consistent position? How is it progressing?
Dr Nicoll : I do speak with vice-chancellors regularly about a range of topics. The issue of MOOCs has come up in conversation with some of the them. The issue for us is that, if a university were to adopt a MOOC in some of its offering, we would be looking at how that university met the threshold standards. It is our standard that we have to apply legislatively, and so it is within that brief that we would look at what happened. We will be putting something out on our website—that is, some guidance in terms of the sorts of issues that TEQSA may look at in regard to the adoption of MOOCs. Yes, we will be looking at that. We have just launched a new website and we will be progressively putting up new material on that new website, including some guidance on MOOCs.
Senator RHIANNON: When do you expect the guidelines will go public?
Dr Nicoll : I cannot give you a date for that.
Senator RHIANNON: Weeks, months?
Dr Nicoll : I cannot give you a date for that, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: In terms of your discussions with the vice-chancellors, are there any universities that are fairly advanced in bringing forward MOOCs?
Dr Nicoll : You would have to raise that with the vice-chancellors.
Senator RHIANNON: Is it more that you cannot share it with us or that you do not know?
Dr Nicoll : No. A number of universities are involved in them already—the University of Melbourne; Deakin is looking at it—but it is not something that is certainly at the top of my topics to talk to vice-chancellors about.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Chair.