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The future of academic standards

The recent discussion paper on setting and monitoring academic standards for Australian Higher Education from the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) should have been a welcome contribution to a national discussion on this critically important topic.

It is a shame that it has come so late and at the same time that the federal government has announced there will be a new system for ensuring standards at the tertiary level.

But why such a small contribution? AUQA points to the limitations of its own paper: "This paper gives the rudiments of a structure that is designed to clarify and advance current practice” (my emphasis) and “outlines foundations of a national structure for academic standards in Australian higher education” (my emphasis again). Why only the rudiments and foundations so late in the piece? Surely more than this is due, or, dare I say, overdue?

The AUQA discussion paper says, “This AUQA project is intended to make a major theoretical and practical contribution to understanding and monitoring academic achievement standards in Australian higher education”.  That’s a lovely idea, if it actually delivered such a contribution, but why attempt this so late?

The timing of release of this paper has the more cynical in the sector suggesting it was a last ditch attempt to appear to be addressing standards before the new agency was announced.  Whatever the reasons, the timing is strange.

As the paper says, AUQA has been evaluating quality for 8 years.  How has it managed to avoid a discussion paper on academic standards for such a long time?

Whatever the history, the future will be different. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has been conceived and will soon be born.  It will develop a set of formal statements of academic standards by discipline along with processes for applying those standards and a set of indicators and instruments to directly assess and compare learning outcomes.

Despite their apparent demise, AUQA seems intent on bravely soldiering on.  They have proposed a curious process in relation to their discussion paper. Universities have been asked to respond.  But I wonder why a university would chose to do so, in the context of a very uncertain future for AUQA?

Better that each University spend time ensuring their internal processes for setting, monitoring and ensuring appropriate academic standards are exemplary and promptly addressing any areas where they are not.  Better we continue to develop and refine formal statements of academic standards by discipline and the processes we will use for applying these standards.

This will be my own university’s approach as we watch the development of TESQA with interest.

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