Aussies, Acronyms, and Accountability

Quick quiz for non-Australians: In a post-AUQA world, how will TEQSA make sensible use of the AQF, the ERA, the CEQ, the AUSSE, and perhaps the CLA?  As DEEWR adds the functions of the recently abolished ALTC to its many other responsibilities, how useful will the government’s new My University web site be when it is unveiled later this year? Will the imminent “uncapping” of government-sponsored university places, in tandem with a new funding system in which government dollars follow students, lead to the kind of extreme, market-driven differentiation of academic offerings within and between institutions that critics have warned of?

I would certainly not claim detailed knowledge of these complex and contested matters after a scant two weeks in Australia. But I can state authoritatively that the Australians have more and better education acronyms than can be found in the United States – or perhaps anyplace else. I can also note that the twin policy imperatives of access and accountability in Australia, and the rhetoric accompanying their implementation, are strikingly similar to the goals of postsecondary policymakers in the United States (notwithstanding significant differences in how universities are funded and organized).

Just as the Obama administration has set ambitious targets for U.S. degree attainment, Australia’s Labor government is aiming to have 40 percent of 25-34 year olds holding a bachelor’s degree or more by 2025 – up from about 30 percent today. Canberra wants to do more to increase postsecondary participation by disadvantaged students. It wants to rely more on market forces in determining where funding will go, i.e. in the institutions and programs where students decide to enroll, rather than on the basis of a pre-allocated number of slots eligible for government dollars. Together with this opening up of the student market – albeit while retaining distinctly non-market-oriented controls on fees, and retaining the power to regulate enrollment growth in some instances – the government is establishing a new regulatory body. It’s intended to ensure that a broadening of access doesn’t lead to weakening of quality. Key components of the new regulatory regime include attempts to create much better outcome-oriented measures of student learning, improved academic productivity, performance-oriented targeting of research funds, and greater transparency to give the public and policymakers a clearer idea of how well universities are performing. Sound familiar, Americans?

Now, about that alphabet-soup of acronyms. The TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, is a brand-new and much-discussed national regulatory and quality control body. It replaces AUQA, or the Australian Universities Quality Agency. All the details of TEQSA’s role are not final, but it is intended to have broad oversight powers. It may ultimately merge with another newly created body that monitors vocational education providers, creating a national super-regulator over the entire tertiary sector. As for the AQF, that would be the Australian Qualifications Framework, which creates guidelines for a range of national academic qualifications. Next up: ERA, which stands for Excellence in Research for Australia, a new and controversial measure of research quality and productivity. The CEQ is the Course Experience Questionnaire, which gathers data on the teaching and learning experience of Australia’s university graduates. The AUSSE, perhaps the best-named of all, is the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement — a kissing-cousin to NSSE, the National Survey of Student Engagement, well-known in U.S. universities. ALTC stands for the Australian Teaching and Learning Council, which worked with universities to do pretty much what its name suggests. After it was eliminated in the recent budget, its functions will now be absorbed by DEEWR. That’s the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, generally pronounced DEE-WOH (and the sponsor of my Australia trip). The CLA, of course, is the Collegiate Learning Assessment, used by many institutions in the U.S. to assess how much students actually learn while they’re in college

Some of these institutions and measurements have been around for a while; some are brand-new. They are by no means universally loved by Australian universities. But taken together, they suggest that an accountability culture is on the rise in Australian postsecondary institutions. When the My University web site, modeled on the government’s popular My School site, goes live in the fall, the public will have easier access than ever to core information and emerging performance measures. In an environment where measuring outcomes trumps evaluating processes, more universities are exploring how to gauge student learning. When I visited Australian Catholic University’s North Sydney campus, Anne Cummins, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Students, Learning and Teaching, told me about the university’s participation in a government incentive program to measure student learning – first by developing assessments, then administering them, and finally reporting results that might qualify the university for a modest amount of performance funding as well as bragging rights. We talked about new ways of delivering course content effectively at lower cost (that is, how to improve academic productivity  and I mentioned the National Center for Academic Transformation, the U.S.-based organization that works with universities on technology-driven course redesign efforts. I thought this might be new to Cummins – until she told me that she was having a conference call with the group later that day.

A few days later, I visited Canberra and spoke about the new accountability regime with David Hazlehurst. He’s a former Treasury official who now heads the higher education division of DEEWR. He emphasized that the department’s call for universities to use a number of evaluation measures, including the CLA, will place an emphasis on improvement, not absolute standing. In the case of both research and teaching, he said: “The government believes strongly in university autonomy. The flip side of that is there has to be good information about what you’re doing.” The need for helpful information will become even greater, Hazlehurst noted, as undergraduate education becomes demand-driven and universities are no longer guaranteed (or limited to) a set number of places allocated by the government.

The government is trying to persuade universities that they would be wise to collaborate on its ambitious project. The day before I saw him, Hazlehurst had spoken to a gathering of the Group of Eight, an organization of Australia’s leading research universities. His message, as he restated it to me: “We understand that there are lots of conceptual and methodological issues here. We understand that there is no single measure, and that a range of measures will be helpful. But work with us. The government is quite determined to have these kinds of measures, but would much prefer to work with the sector then do things to the sector. By working with us, we’ll  end up with the best possible approach, accepting that nothing is perfect.”

Viewing educational accountability, like politics, as the art of the possible makes sense. After all, measurement and transparency systems need not be set in stone – they can be adjusted to account for difficulties in the field. I happened to see this principle in action while I was here. Last week, Australian National University professor Bruce Chapman, president of the Economic Society of Australia, complained to me that the rankings of research journals included in the ERA caused problems for anybody who published on domestic policy issues, which aren’t typically of much interest to the top-rated international research publications. For months, many others have voiced similar complaints about the arbitrariness of the government’s A through C grading scheme for journals. A few days after I spoke to Chapman, the government’s minister for Innovation, Industry, Science, and Research announced that journals would no longer be assigned rankings in the ERA methodology.

That’s a good example of the kind of mid-course correction that will likely take place many times as the Australian higher ed oversight regime is rolled out and refined. But the core effort will surely go forward in one form or another. I’ve even come up with a good Australian acronym for this principle: BARBIE (a basic accountability regime will be inevitable almost everywhere). See how much I’ve learned about the best way to approach education policy in this country?

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