TEQSA Act amendments signal changes to higher education regulations.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020 was passed by both Houses of Parliament on the 18th of February 2021. Although, these changes have not attracted much publicity, the amendments signal a number of significant changes to the regulatory framework for higher education in Australia. However, there is still uncertainty around the detail on how these changes with be implemented across the sector.

The most significant of these changes enable:

  • the implementation of the government’s response to the recommendations of the Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards which specify the threshold standards required for operating as a University, Overseas University, and the new categories of University College, and Institute of Higher Education.
  • TEQSA to extend the period of registration and course accreditation periods more than once effectively not requiring identified providers to submit re-registration and re-accreditation applications to TEQSA
  • TEQSA to make a determination outside the Threshold Standards for consideration of compliance with standards relating to quality of research
  • Inclusion of the new AQF qualification ‘undergraduate certificate’ introduced in 2020 to be defined as a higher education award
  • review by the AAT of a negative decision by TEQSA for category change

However, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about a number of key issues enabled by these legislative changes. What we don’t know are:

  • the actual detail of the new Provider Category Standards (PCS) noting that the Government response indicates that the Recommendations will be implemented
  • when and how TEQSA will implement a transition to the new PCS
  • the details of revisions to the criteria for self-accrediting authority (SAA) and the proportion of SAA required for entry into the University College category
  • the details required for greenfield applications in the university categories
  • how the determination relating to research quality will be used by TEQSA in practice to assess research standards for universities.
  • how TEQSA will use its powers to extend a provider’s registration period or course accreditation period
  • whether the inclusion of the Undergraduate Certificate within the Act signals that the current December 2021 expiry date for this qualification will require extension or a decision for permanent inclusion.

How these changes will be implemented in practice, by the regulator, will potentially have an impact  on the sector. Of note, the relationship of SAA to category change is significant for those providers that have some SAA and those considering preparing applications. Additionally, the criteria for granting extensions to TEQSA scheduled applications in the context of TEQSA Cost Recovery initially announced in the 2018-2019 Budget but since delayed may have significant implications. Finally, the status of the Undergraduate Certificate requires confirmation to assist in institutional planning and also to ensure market confidence in this qualification.

Other changes from the bill enable:

  • TEQSA to assume control of higher education student records from a registered higher education provider in the event the provider ceases operations; and protect the use of the word ‘university’ in Australian internet domain names
  • Higher Education Support Act 2003 to confirm that higher education providers can use Indigenous student assistance grants to assist prospective, as well as existing, Indigenous students.

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