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Lessons from Australia for the regulation of English higher education

australian flag in the sky

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has published a new paper on the regulation of English higher education by Anthony McClaran, the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a former Chief Executive of both the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

Good Regulation: Lessons for England from the Australian Experience (HEPI Policy Note 47) notes that, while there is opposition to the statutory regulation of higher education institutions, it brings clear potential advantages, including: clarity; a sanctions regime; recognition of the public purpose of institutions; accountability to democratic authorities; and protection for students and others.

The paper concludes with some possible lessons for England as the position of the Office for Students continues to be widely debated, as well as formally reviewed by the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee:

  • Securing independence through checks and balances, with real accountability, not only because independence is a statutory requirement but because visible independence is essential to trust and therefore to the assurance of students, taxpayers, stakeholders and international audiences.
  • Putting regulatory judgement through rigorous challenge, both inside the regulator’s structures and beyond – this can go hand in hand with an approach which subjects proposed interventions to the tests of risk, proportionality and necessity.
  • Recognising the role that a regulator can play in delivering sector-wide responses to the great thematic challenges that inevitably arise in institutions as large, complex and embedded in our society as higher education institutions.

Anthony McClaran, the author of the report, said:

‘During my career, I have seen England’s higher education system move from self-regulation to co-regulation to external statutory regulation via the Office for Students.

‘In my time leading the main regulator of the tertiary sector in Australia, I saw how effective good statutory regulation can be. But it took a few years for Australia to reach its current situation, as there were initially concerns about regulatory burden, excessive bureaucracy and problematic communication – all of which we now hear from some in England.

‘The lessons from Australia include the importance of a risk-based approach, sensible rather than overblown data requests and treating providers as partners rather than merely objects.’

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said:

‘When comparing higher education systems around the world, you quickly see that England and Australia have a huge amount in common. However, while the two countries’ university systems tend to track one another, Australia’s higher education system is smaller and often one step ahead. For example, Australia introduced income-contingent tuition fee loans before anywhere in the UK and it removed student number caps before England did.

‘This clear report shows the two countries are also tracking each other when it comes to regulation. The main Australian regulator, TEQSA, was regularly accused of overstretching itself in its first few years – just as England’s Office for Students is often accused of the same. But the situation down under has abated and the Australian experience might therefore offer some useful lessons.’

Peter Nikoletatos, Global Industry General Manager Education and Adjunct Professor at TechnologyOne, who have kindly sponsored the report, said:

‘Higher Education regulation plays a vital role in ensuring quality, accessibility, and accountability in the sector. England can draw valuable lessons from Australia’s experience in this regard. 

‘Australia’s effective regulatory framework has yielded positive outcomes. Robust quality assurance mechanisms, such as the TEQSA as Professor McClaran espouses, have enhanced the overall standards of higher education institutions. Transparent reporting and accountability measures have fostered public trust and confidence. 

‘Moreover, Australia’s strong emphasis on student protection, including tuition fee regulation and safeguards against unscrupulous practices, has created a fair and secure environment for learners.’

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