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New standards could tie research to university status in Australia

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Universities across Australia may lose their status if they don't produce enough good research papers.

A university in Australia that fails to produce enough quality research could lose its status, according to new standards proposed by a review panel.

Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake who is leading the panel said the measure should be included in the “provider category standards” (PCS), which are a list of requirements universities have to meet in order to earn their titles.

According to Times Higher Education, this means universities might be required to demonstrate their research is at or above world standard in at least three broad fields of education. They would then earn scores of 3, 4 or 5 in the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment to decide the fate of their statuses.

In its current form, the PCS does not define the quantity or quality of research conducted within each field to justify “university” status in Australia. It merely stipulates that for an institution to hold the title, it must provide postgraduate research degrees in at least three broad fields.

“I’m not trying to run a sinister agenda,” Coaldrake said in outlining his agenda at a Brisbane conference last week, THE reported.

“We are trying to… encourage improvement and growth in research performance.”

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Current language in the PCS allows universities in Australia to do the bare minimum in order to meet university status requirements.

This means the institution can simply offer just one postgraduate course and produce one uncited research paper in each of the three broad fields in order to keep the title.

In his discussion paper on the matter, Coaldrake said: 

“This scenario may not meet community expectations of what a university should deliver, but it is plausible that a provider so described would satisfy the current PCS requirements.”

The academic added last week that although many universities could quite easily meet the requirements he had in mind, his panel wanted to “build aspiration on the upside rather than the downside”. 

But what do universities think about the proposal?

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Melbourne-based University of Divinity vice-chancellor Peter Sherlock said providing more clarity around the university status was a welcome measure. However, he raised some points on its purpose and implementation.

“If we got a 2 on ERA, I’m sure TEQSA [the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the higher education regulator] would be giving me a phone call and saying ‘what are you doing about it?’,” THE quoted him saying when pointing out that universities were already being measured on research quality.

In addition to the ERA, universities around the world are also graded on their research output in independent league tables put together by firms like THE and QS.

Sherlock also pointed out that university titles are currently being recorded in federal and state legislation, as well as TEQSA’s national register.

“Who actually is making the decision here?” he asked.

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In addition to lifting research standards, the review is also recommending a tightening of current higher education provider categories, reducing it down from six to four. 

Part of this includes the removal of the “university of specialisation” classification, of which Divinity is the sole titleholder. It would see the removal of the university college category, which the panel also wants to remove.

This puts the status of Avondale College in jeopardy. The 120-year-old institution has just secured approval to become the first Australian university college.

Coaldrake said the current number of categories not only confuses students, it takes away the value of the university status in Australia and doesn’t meet with job needs. This has to change so the Australian university “brand” keeps up with current demands.

“The word ‘university’ has got to mean something. We’ve got to strengthen that brand. Universities have to be associated with a high level of research and teaching. We’ve got to look at what it means to be ‘fit for purpose’,” Coaldrake said in Australian Financial Review.

All higher education providers are regulated by TEQSA although 37 universities and several other non-university education providers have self-accrediting status. This means they have the autonomy to award degrees that meet Australian standards without having to go to the regulator each time.