Regulation rules over uni independence

There is a “pattern of actual or proposed interference in matters previously left to academic or university judgment,” HE governance expert Professor Andrew Norton has warned.

In a post released this week, Professor Norton raises concerns about Government wading into areas that had previously been the exclusive preserve of universities. “This is unusual in a country where university autonomy over academic matters has mostly been respected.”

Last week, Education Ministers released a draft plan for a Student Ombudsman with authority to investigate student complaints of gendered violence on campus. The announcement included an assurance that the Ombudsman would have no authority in academic decision making, but the Office would represent students in disputes with universities on a broad range of issues, from course administration to “unconscious and structural bias” in funding for research staff.

Professor Norton points to the Ombudsman policy requirement for safe teaching and learning environments, which would be oversighted, at least at first, by the Department of Education, rather than individual universities or regulator TEQSA.

And he suggests the “issue is the same” in the new Support for Students Policy, which creates requirements for institutions to act, which “should be decided by academics rather than bureaucrats.”

The Policy certainly sets out what providers must do, covering, how institutions will assess suitability for study, especially among students who have “triggered alerts”, support for students struggling with housing, finance and mental health, help from academics and peers, appropriate crisis and “critical harm response arrangements.” For institutions that do not report satisfactory progress to the minister there are $18 000 fines (Future Campus August 23).

And it will be officials who do the deciding on progress,““where a higher education provider fails to be compliant, the Department will consider publishing outcomes against the support for students policy. For example, that the higher education provider has been non-compliant against the policy and the reasons for the non-compliance. The Department could also consider publishing student outcome data for all higher education providers.”

There’s a pattern here for officials to intervene, as Universities Australia noted in comments on the Ombudsman proposal; it “seemingly extends beyond the issue of student safety to include HECS administration and course administration.”

“This would constitute a significant reform and detailed examination is appropriate. It would be inefficient to create duplication and overlap with existing regulation and regulatory bodies which deal with these issues,” UA stated.

But with universities slammed over their management of gender violence the sectors reputation is such that they are in no position to assert their autonomy.



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