The Society for Research into Higher Education


What is a university?

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by Marcia Devlin

The right to use the term ‘University’ is under examination in Australia. In the current Australian higher education sector, there are distinctions between providers that may label themselves as a ‘University’ and those who are a non-university ‘Higher Education Provider’.

Currently, the right to use the term ‘University’ is restricted to Australian or overseas institutions offering at least one accredited higher education course in Australia, that are self-accrediting and that deliver courses that meet the Higher Education Standards Framework across a range of broad fields of study, including Masters Degrees (Research) and Doctoral Degrees (Research) in at least three of the broad fields of study that the institution offers. The Higher Education Standards Framework is also known as the Threshold Standards, and include the Provider Registration Standards, the Provider Course Accreditation Standards, the Qualifications Standards and the Provider Category Standards.

The examination of the right to use the term ‘University’ is being conducted as part of a review of the Provider Category Standards. The review will examine relevant evidence and views and make recommendations as to the most appropriate categorisation system for Australian higher education delivery and criteria settings within each of the recommended provider categories. To be a ‘University’ under the current Provider Category Standards, an institution must undertake research that leads to the creation of new knowledge and original creative endeavour, and demonstrate sustained scholarship that informs teaching and learning. The ‘Higher Education Provider’ category requires providers to be active in research only when engaged in research student supervision and requires academic staff to be active in scholarship that informs their teaching.

Currently in Australia, there are 40 institutions that are in the provider category of ‘University’, with a total number of students of just over 1.2 million and 127 institutions that are in the provider category of non-university Higher Education Provider, with around a total of 133,000 students.

Of the 40 current Universities:

* 38 access the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) – through which the Australian Government subsidises tuition costs for domestic higher education students;

* 40 access the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) – which provides income contingent loans to help students meet their study costs through higher education providers; and

* 40 access Research block grants – which provide block funding to higher education providers for research and research training on a calendar year basis using program-specific formulae related to attracting research income and to the successful completion of higher degrees by research.

In contrast, of the 127 non-university Higher Education Providers:

* 6 access the CGS;

* 94 access HELP; and

* 1 accesses the research block grant.

While the scope of Provider Category Standards review does not include funding, as the discussion paper notes, any future entrants to the university categories could gain access to public funds that are currently only open to existing universities.

The current requirement for Australian universities to undertake research has been raised as part of the review. It is an open secret in Australia that universities support research through teaching revenue, particularly but not only from international students. It is also widely understood that research is linked to university prestige and reputation, particularly where international rankings rely heavily on a university’s research performance. Such rankings play an important role in attracting fee-paying international students, which make up around one quarter of Australia’s university students and whose fees assist universities to conduct their business.

The notion of the teaching-research nexus is also under scrutiny as part of the Provider Category Standards review. There is often commentary in Australia about the lack of evidence around a relationship between research and teaching quality, the student experience or graduate employment outcomes. As noted in the PCS discussion paper, a 2017 Productivity Commission Review found “no compelling policy rationale for requiring high-quality providers to conduct research in order to be able to label themselves as a ‘university’”.

The discussion paper asks five questions:

  1. What characteristics should define a ‘higher education provider’ and a ‘university’ in the PCS?
  2. Are the PCS fit for purpose in terms of current and emerging needs? Why?
  3. Should some categories be eliminated or new categories be introduced? What should be the features of any new categories?
  4. Do specific categories need to be revised? How?
  5. How would the needs of providers, students, industry, regulator and broader public interest be served by your suggested changes to the PCS?

Stakeholders are being consulted as part of the review. Submissions are open to all interested parties and due by early March 2019.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.


Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “What is a university?

  1. Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    important defining process of HE by Marcia Devlin

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