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TEQSA Uses Consultants All The Time

Academics, consultants, lawyers, professors, and legal counsel are all needed to create a sustainable, contemporary higher education system.

TEQSA’s unprecedented interference in the higher education market hit a new low in early 2017. In the view of Darlo Higher Education and many in the higher education industry, TEQSA aimed, through a series of aggressive and emotionally charged media releases, to try to intimidate many potential providers from seeking high quality advice and service on the TEQSA Act.

In speaking to numerous senior public servants and academics, there was a mixed range of response to TEQSA’s various public announcements at the time. The main one was shock that the regulator could be as brazen as interfering in free relationships between organisations seeking improvement in their internal capabilities. A former senior TEQSA member described it as “bizarre” and “lacking in logic or reason”. It seemed reminiscent of the actions of state-run economies such as China, who sought to ban consultants.

TEQSA Consultants Use 

It makes it even more bizarre when you consider that TEQSA engages consultants all the time. For its own reviews of its regulatory performance, TEQSA has commissioned consultants to write its own reports. It also pays academics as consultants to review applications. It also commissions university academics to write its own standards, and to help draft legislation. It uses consultants for human resources and recruitment. It uses consultants for legal advice. It uses consultants for professional development and counselling. In other words, TEQSA loves consultants!

However, when it comes to private companies, TEQSA believes it needs to issue a caution. This double-standard aside, there has been a pretty unfair and unrealistic portrayal of TEQSA consultants, what they do, and their role in supporting providers. The role is inimical to TEQSA’s own use of academics to advise them on curriculum, teaching and learning, and other issues of academic importance in the ‘Experts Register’. It seems, in our opinion, to really be a case of creating a Putin-like atmosphere of finding academics (or paying academics, in the case of the Experts Register) to support its academic position, but deny the same rights and choice to independent companies to bolster their own academic knowledge. (It really is ironic that the government is negotiating a range of free trade agreements abroad, but, in our opinion, seems to be trying to restrain Australian businesses.)

Identical TEQSA Applications are Near Impossible

In their media releases, TEQSA claims that some consultants provide applications that are similar; however, it makes no sense to us.

If higher education providers have a concern for quality, identical TEQSA applications are near impossible to produce. This is because the internal machinations of (prospective) higher education providers differ, as do the people involved.  While we have no idea what TEQSA is referring to about identical applications, it is clear that any academic or corporate governance body doing its job will review key documentation and thus produce a unique submission. Such reviews and ownership of key institutional documentation necessarily requires customisation and internal, robust discussions. So, the identical applications approach is very strange to us. We can only assume that there are RTO/VET consultants advising several providers and making the mistake of misunderstanding academic conventions. (Then again, few case managers are academics and many who are have absolutely no experience in teaching and learning or research). However, VET consultants seeking to help organisations with higher education applications might not be too wrong in misunderstanding the standardisation of process or knowledge. As the TEQSA standards have, at their core, the aim of standardising higher education, by being prescriptive it would make sense that consistent evidence would meet a standard or not. That this is not the case is a confusing aspect of the TEQSA standards to the uninitiated – hence, one of the reasons that companies seek help.

Higher Education Consultants on Experts Register

Darlo Higher Education will shortly produce a further article will report on the failings and alleged bias of academics on the Experts Register, but we would make the observation that the attempted limitation of choice for independent companies to access academics is frankly farcical. Imagine if companies were not able to access accountants, lawyers, or human resources professionals to advise them on a range of affairs. The TEQSA Threshold Standards virtually imply that this range of advisors will be involved in the process. Likewise, the standards require the establishment of a range of governance arrangements. Having experienced and well-qualified governance board members, in own opinion, preferably of a similar age, racial, and economic status as the current commissioners (e.g. white, 65+ , experienced at university, and well-off) can go a long way for potential applicants. A recent applicant who Darlo Higher Education has worked with was largely successful because they had a fabulous (and demographically similar) board that was favourably viewed by the Commissioners (only after an ATT tribunal, mind you). (The public report was, in our opinion, as mean and as ungracious as you could find).

Higher Education Quality: There is No Short-Cut

The assumption that there is a way to short-cut the TEQSA process is, in our opinion, just simply deluded. There are clear legislative requirements for assessing an application (9 months), and these are stated clearly in the TEQSA Act. To assert that consultants are suggesting ‘short-cuts’ is equally ridiculous. There may be some solo consultants who make near impossible claims, particularly because they have no capacity to work in a team and tend to be stale in their knowledge of current student needs and their learning requirements, so their claims are indeed worth being weary of. However, there are naturally going to be efficiencies and insights that organisations obtain by engaging with consultants.

We suspect that one of the main fears is that TEQSA consultants will actually help providers become more successful. The red tape for higher education applications, and to become a higher education provider in Australia, are indeed extremely onerous on providers. They seem to be deliberately obtuse and, unfortunately, difficult to decipher for non-academics. Gaining some support and insight into understanding the regulations and how to comply with them does not seem to be any short-cut. The only short-cut is that academics may be able to decipher the extremely poorly written standards and what evidence might be needed to address them.

Higher Education Consultants are Here to Stay

Darlo Higher Education is a disruptive model. Looking at the number of copy-cat higher education consulting firms that are coming into the market (and it is highly unlikely to stop), we expect more choice for providers – this is a good thing. Changes in higher education cannot be blamed on consultants, they are simply responding to market demands. Many academics seem to think that their educational experiences (i.e. a big campus, publicly funded education, a world without social media and the internet) should be the ‘norm’. That is not the case. Disruption in higher education is no caused by Darlo Higher Education, but we have definitely identified as a trend. The likelihood of going back to the 1950s style campus, where students sit on the lawn of a mega campus, talking about French philosophy is pure fantasy. Nevertheless, the current standards (and writers of those standards) seem to think they are contemporary! These standards are simply codes for an antiquated system undergoing radical re-structuring and an attempt to define a way of living and working as academics that is increasingly untenable.

TEQSA claims that some consultants provide applications that are similar; however, it makes no sense to us. Many former TEQSA staff frequently approach Darlo Higher Education for employment opportunities, and it does seem strange that there is such a strong interest in working for us. (Note: we tend not to hire TEQSA staff as they tend not to have any first hand knowledge of academic issues such as teaching and learning. Moreover, working in the private sector is world’s apart from the public service). As Darlo Group has been in operation since 2011, and TEQSA started ranting in 2017, it seems that it had a bug bear about a recent group, as has been noted by other consultants. While some have used the media as a (cowardly) strategy to gain competitive advantage, the fact is Darlo Higher Education, as the market leader, is by far the most established (and first) group working in this field in Australia, specifically for private higher education (Our website dates back to 2000!).

While we have no idea about identical applications, it is clear that any academic or corporate governance body doing its job will review key documentation. Such reviews and ownership of key institutional documentation necessarily requires customisation and internal, robust discussions. So, the identical applications myth is very strange. We can only assume that there are RTO/VET consultants advising several providers and making the mistake of misunderstanding academic conventions. (Then again, few case managers are academics and many who are have absolutely no experience in teaching and learning or research). However, VET consultants seeking to help organisations with higher education applications might not be too wrong in misunderstanding the standardisation of process or knowledge. As the TEQSA standards have, at their core, the aim of standardising higher education, by being prescriptive it would make sense that consistent evidence would meet a standard or not. That this is not the case is a confusing aspect of the TEQSA standards to the uninitiated – hence, one of the reasons that individuals seek help. ANU Professors have highlighted a lack of competency in the Australian public service generally.

All universities and higher education providers need academics for advice. Whether these advisors are inside or outside the organisation is an interesting subject. Usually it is only older, senior consultants that have the privilege of treating their university department as co-share office, consuming a range of human resources – from research assistants to legal and administrative tools – while pocketing high paying consultants to their own side businesses. This is not true for those academics with integrity; however, increasingly lots of academics are running mini-rackets, at the expense of student fees and public tax payer money. Government seems to be largely happy to support US based consulting companies at the expense of using local Australian businesses. Rather than spending $US4.7 billion in 2016 largely on the Big 4 consulting firms, would not the government and universities be better spending that on investing in higher education, or even better yet, returning it to taxpayers.

Lawyers, Academics and University Professors Caution TEQSA

It it thankful that groups like Minter Ellison, the Group of 8, Universities Australia and COPHE are all active in defending the rights of higher education providers. All these groups have made submissions to TEQSA stating their opposition to reducing procedural fairness to all higher education providers and applicants. Could it be the case that TEQSA is trying to silence critics rather than provide warnings of any sort?

Just as various levels of government does not like human rights lawyers defending the rights of refugees, the attack on independent advice, including legal advice, is very troubling. In reviewing TEQSA’s attempt to increase its powers to publish its decisions prior to a provider having a chance to respond, Minter Ellison, a leading law firm, has provided substantial reasons in its submission to TEQSA why there are some grave risks to procedural fairness.

The Group of 8, in a submission in 2017 following this bizarre attack on independent companies, foresaw that TEQSA itself rather than safeguarding quality, is, itself, a risk to Australia’s reputation:

  • “The importance of maintaining Australia’s hard-won reputation for excellence in higher education to our students cannot be overstated. Allowing regulatory decisions to be published before the affected parties have had an opportunity to access any review of that decisions would appear to remove any procedural fairness and diminish the scope for natural justice for providers. In our view the proposal poses the very great risk of damaging Australia’s domestic and international reputation. Such a proposal is also very likely to adversely affect a provider’s existing student body; potentially without any basis. Given the work that has been done to build and protect Australia’s reputation in this sphere over many decades, this is an unacceptable risk given the possible gain appears minimal at best.”

https://go8.edu.au/publication/go8-submission-teqsa-consultation-proposed-changes-publication-regulatory-decisions

The prospective decision to ‘name and shame’ providers is indeed a 180 reversal on a previous promise:

  • TEQSA recognises the potential reputational risks with publishing information on the findings from risk assessments and feedback that information on sector risk should be high level and focus on system-wide risk as viewed through the TEQSA Risk Assessment Framework; … Noting strong feedback, TEQSA will not release information on individual provider risk ratings.”https://campusmorningmail.com.au/the-qt-in-teqsa-uni-regulator-commits-to-no-names-on-problem-performance/

Declining Confidence in the Regulator

What might be said at this stage is that TEQSA is running out of people to blame. At first, it was the higher education providers themselves, then it was the higher education consultants and TEQSA consultants, then it was legislation that was hand-tying them. Considering in its recent report that private higher education providers are overwhelmingly critical of the actions taken by TEQSA towards them, with a very small number of higher education providers agreeing “the actions are proportionate to risks” (only 24%). In other words, 76% of private higher education providers perceive unfairness in the system. The glaring preference towards universities and against the private sector including faith based, so-called “for profit” (a fairly condescending term), and prospective HEPs is stark in their own data:

 

That's why we need TEQSA consultants

 

From looking at the figures above, it is clear that TEQSA is not going to work with private higher educations, and that is why higher education academics such as the Darlo Higher Education Team should – along with lawyers, CEOs, professors, industry professionals and legal counsellors – be available to assist them. Why would any government believe that they can tell companies how to spend or to invest their own money? What chance for a system that is centrally controlled by government and has no scope for companies within a free market to help each other? Much more than short-cuts is at stake, it is democracy and freedom of academic speech itself.

Darlo Group Pty Ltd 2018 (c). No part of this publication may be reproduced unless approved by expressed written permission by the Darlo Group. 2018. TEQSA table is noted as creative commons and accessible for public fair use.