Opinion- 20 September 2010

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Joseph Gora: Watch Out! Here Comes the TEQSA Juggernaut  


pdf file-available from Australasian Science



This opinion piece by Joseph Gora* was first published in the September 2010 issue of the Australian Universities' Review (Vol.52, No.2). It is reprinted here with the permission of  AUR and the author.


Is it possible to be assessed to death? This question has haunted me for some time as I have pondered the daily grind of the factory-university. It has also led me to recall a legendary figure who worked in that quintessential bastion of excellence, QUT, who, in outlining his main performance goal for the next academic year, declared his intention to 'die on the job'. Initially I thought this referred to an unfulfilled sex act. But no, this guy was 'serious' (at least about lampooning the performance review process). Apparently, after guffaws of laughter and an injunction to 'now-let's-get-real', the Head of School awaited a more considered response. Instead, the troublesome subject stood his ground and insisted on achieving immortality by demonstrating his selfless devotion to the corporate ethos. I'm told that despite repeated protestations by the Head of School, the goal remained in place. Happily, the Kamikaze subject went on to retire from the university to lead a happy post-corporate existence.

How fortunate for this person given the regulatory storm clouds that are gathering over our magnificent higher education sector. For not only are academics facing yet another round of teaching review (this time an obsession with peer review) but, more ominously, there is the looming threat of hyper-regulation in the form of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

I can hear the screams from here!

Based on the European 'turning process' (your guess is as good as mine!) and presided over by the then Minister for the Alphabet, the right dour Julia Gillard, TEQSA is being touted as the best thing since takeaway pizza. Officials from the Department of the Alphabet have embarked on a nationwide tour to promote the virtues of TEQSA via a number of lavish power point presentations to nervous university managers. There is much bloated talk of the 'education revolution', which, - so the rhetoric goes - seeks to position Oz as 'the best educated, best skilled and best trained workforce in the world'. By investing $57 million over 4 years in TEQSA - considerably less than the sum recommended in the Bradley Review - it is hoped that Australia will become 'stronger, fairer and more prosperous.' This is fighting talk for governments having to make up for the years of financial drought under the previous Howard Government.

The intention of the latest reforms, according to our dot point PR specialists, is to 'make the system more student-centred and transparent' and to 'make far more information about the system publicly available'. Conveniently avoiding the point that universities are already obsessed with student centredness, the government argues that 'students' choices will largely determine funding and they will have more and better information on which to base those choices.' TEQSA will, through its oversight of something called 'quality', put 'standards at the centre of the system', which begs the question of where these were before the existence of the agency was announced.

Highlighting 'student choices' is of course clearly in keeping with the consumerist ethos. Yet once the quality assurance exercise has exhausted itself, and the wretched My University website has exposed the innards of every institution, academics will find them-selves in the full glare of public scrutiny. They will feel like reluctant pole dancers, cavorting to rhythms not of their making.

In the frenzied search for 'capacity building, inclusiveness, transparency' that is supposedly synonymous with quality, the student will now be able to strut around like the consumer royal about to bestow a knighthood on a worthy subject. Not that there's anything new about this - academics are already doing all in their collective powers to address students' multiple and complex needs. Former Minister Gillard, in effect, transferred even more power to students and further emasculated the status of academics, all in the name of 'quality'.

But what is this mysterious entity called 'quality'? Much of it boils down to a calibration of publications, grant acquisitions, information systems, qualification and program accreditation, teaching performance and learning outcomes. On closer inspection this grand assurance exercise turns out to be a four lane highway leading to a cowpat. Why is it so? Well, let's draw on the pointed insights of no-slouch James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland. Writing from the stand-point of one ensnared in a grotesque fantasy, Professor Allan highlights the bizarre foundations upon which the government's quality assurance exercise is mounted. He begins with a conclusion; namely, that TEQSA 'is likely to be an opaque and uninformative system with unintended incentives that no overseas person could take too seriously.' Drawing on his own discipline - law - he begins by unpacking one of the key indicators used by the TEQSA inquisitors: academic publications. He notes how the Australian Research Council has developed a four-tier system of publications in order to rank academic output - a system that Professor Allan describes as 'a bit of a joke.' Why? The learned scholar explains: 'The first tentative list was drawn up by the ARC. It essentially just copied a US list, which was overwhelmingly focused on American law journals. This was such a howler of a list that the job was then handed over to the Council of Australian Law Deans.' Inevitably, parochialism crept into proceedings: '…Australian law journals got plunked into the A* category with the Harvard Law Review and the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. Take it from me, no one outside Australia would think any Australian law journal was in that league.'

But how was the list prioritised? Who was involved? The ARC had apparently cobbled together a list of 24 anonymous folk to determine which journals should be placed where. The only problem was that the ARC refused to reveal the identities of these luminaries. 'Rumour has it', says Professor Allan, 'that only 11 of them replied, but the ARC won't say what those who replied actually said. Nor is it prepared to say how these people were selected, or what percentage of them were Australians.' Professor Allan rightly describes such secrecy as 'outrageous', adding that, 'the ARC's attempt to hide behind some pathetic abstraction such as confidentiality is beyond parody. These so-called experts aren't writing a reference about another person. They're ranking law journals. If they won't sign their names to their opinion and let it become public, they either shouldn't get the job or their views should be wholly discounted.'

But that's not the end of it. Consider the acquisition of grants which is now a lynchpin of any academic's promotion application. Professor Allan notes: '…the fact that one's past ability to win research funds or grant income is being used as one of the criteria of quality. In the hard sciences this just might be halfway defensible. In law and the humanities it is completely bogus.' And here's the punch line: 'Research grants are an input, not an output.'

Further, and close to my revisionist heart, Professor Allan utters what many of us have long wanted someone in seniority to say: 'What matters is the quality of what you produce, not the fact you could convince some ARC appointed people to give you money.' Quite so!

Professor Allan could have gone on (and on) to lambast TEQSA's reliance on student evaluations of teaching which have always been highly suspect, even though some deluded teaching and learning specialists, rather like biblical literalists, choose to believe in them.

So, after all is said and done, what we are likely to be left with after TEQSA's foray into university precincts, is a rapid claim to quality which in fact is anything but. As Professor Allan remarks: 'Sure, it will measure something, it's just that it won't be what most of us would call quality.'

But such criticism is unlikely to stop the TEQSA juggernaut. But wait! There may be hope because the quality assurance public relations crew assures us that: 'Key to the success of the new quality assurance arrangements - and meaningful academic standards in particular - will be the active involvement of the academic community.' And: 'the best way to meet shared goals of a better educated and more inclusive society is to work together.' How lovely - but I'm not persuaded. Like it or not, the vast majority of academics will be dragged kicking and screaming into the quality assurance process without the element of choice that is so generously afforded to students. After all, and here's the rub: 'TEQSA will have powers to regulate university and non-university providers, monitor quality, set standards, provide clear information.' Ok, so it's enforced involvement - what's new, you might ask? The open threat that looms was recently confirmed by Lynn Meek, a key advocate of the assurance juggernaut, who said: 'It's going to take a strong person, or persons, within the regulatory body to confront the management of universities (over areas of weakness).' Make of that what you will, but I fear the worst.

It almost goes without saying that TEQSA has very serious implications for universities in terms of the allocation of performance related funding. Those at the bottom of the heap may well find their reputations sullied to such an extent that they are consigned to the gulags of federal government funding. As noted by The Australian in 2009: 'A university denied a share of the new performance funds might occupy a marginal electorate, for example. The ultimate sanction could be to deny an institution the right to use the university title.'

Perhaps the most important, yet little discussed, question is not how to promote student choice, but the effect of the new regulatory regime on academics. Experience of similar inquisitions elsewhere tells us that once TEQSA has had its way, morale among academics will further decline and many will flee the profession. The exodus started well before the introduction of TEQSA but its inquisitorial existence may well hasten the process.

Joseph Gora: they seek him here, they seek him there! He is the Scarlet Pimpernel of Whackademia. Rumour has it that he once taught at a regional university somewhere in Australia.


*Joseph Gora is a pseudonym for a: "Disinfected academic at one of Australia’s 38 ‘leading’ universities."