Universities surprised by remit of Australian integrity unit

New arm gives Australian regulator a voice in areas already well covered, representative body says

June 25, 2020
watchdog
Source: Istock

Australian universities have been blindsided by the remit of a new academic integrity unit created as part of the country’s higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

Education minister Dan Tehan said the Higher Education Integrity Unit would help to address “emerging threats” to academic and research integrity, cybersecurity, admission standards and independence.

“The unit will ensure that universities continue to focus on the student experience,” he said. “[It] will also work with universities to follow the guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector.”

TEQSA said the unit’s areas of focus would “change as circumstances require” but would include admission standards and information, academic and research governance integrity, student safety, foreign interference, cybersecurity, fraud and corruption. It would also support TEQSA’s responsibilities under the prohibiting academic cheating services bill before Parliament.

Universities Australia said it fully supported TEQSA’s work on contract cheating. But UA said research integrity was already the focus of an “ongoing programme of work” involving the research councils and other agencies.

Chief executive Catriona Jackson said UA was also surprised that TEQSA’s remit now included foreign interference, given the considerable work already being done by the recently established University Foreign Interference Taskforce.

“We’re a little surprised to see the combination of things in this unit,” she said. “We’ll have a discussion with TEQSA and government about the exact intent of this.”

The Australian reported that the unit would have the power to take action against universities that sought to profiteer from the government’s newly announced funding proposals?by hoovering up law, commerce and humanities students paying increased fees of A$14,500 (£8,020) a?year.

“As part of its mandate, the unit will investigate substantial shifts in enrolment patterns at universities and consider the implications for educational quality and provider governance,” Mr Tehan told the newspaper.

The fee hike, to be phased in from next year, will occur only if the government can?steer its proposals through Parliament. This is likely to require the support of at least two of three minor parties in the Senate.

The fee increase has been criticised as an anti-intellectual move that will incentivise universities to enrol more students into humanities instead of job-growth fields?such as engineering, technology and maths.

UA said it would reserve judgement until it had taken time to analyse the complexities of the proposals. Ms Jackson said the current cluster-based funding approach to university places was a “complex beast” and any attempt to change it would be equally complex.

But she unequivocally welcomed the government’s decision to resume indexation of teaching grants. The 2017 suspension of indexation had been “corrosive”, she said.

Ms Jackson also welcomed the government’s proposed A$705?million transition fund as an “important” buffer for both students and universities, and said the government deserved recognition for devising a mechanism to increase university places.

“Every one of our members is reporting substantial increases in demand,” she said. “Surely as a country we want to be able to offer a place in higher education when the alternative might be standing on the unemployment queue.

“It’s important and it’s something we’ve been asking the government to do. In the broad, it is a good thing to ensure that Australians can attend university if they want to and have the ability, especially at a time like this.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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