This is the ninth annual report of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA); it describes the performance and achievements of the agency over 2019-20.
The operational year presented many changes and challenges. It was the first complete year, following increased budget funding, that: there was a full complement of staff to deliver the work of the agency; there were changes due to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on our regulatory approach and the work arrangements of staff; the agency was subject to an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) performance audit; and there were changes in leadership of the agency.
RESPONSE TO THE IMPACT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
TEQSA undertook a considerable amount of work to address risks to the quality of higher education provision due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This work included: providing time-limited relief to providers from having to prepare applications for re-registration and re-accreditation; providing a wide range of resources on the TEQSA website to assist providers move to online delivery; working with international quality assurance bodies to address concerns about the quality of online delivery; and working directly with providers and their peak bodies to stay informed about the ongoing impact on the sector. The government gave further relief to providers through refunds and waivers of fees as part of its Higher Education Relief Package.
The agency's approach to supporting the sector in managing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which TEQSA staff undertook while also transitioning to remote working arrangements, received very positive feedback from providers.
TEQSA'S PERFORMANCE IN 2019-20
Following TEQSA's focus on recruitment and training of staff in 2018-19, the agency began to see the benefits in 2019-20 of the increased scope of activities undertaken and improvements in performance.
The agency cleared much of the backlog of re-registration assessments from previous years and did further work on improving the delivery of its assessment functions. There were improvements in the timeliness of decisions where assessment of applications did not find compliance issues and there was also a 43 per cent increase in the number of assessments completed in 2019-20 compared to the previous year.
In addition to delivering webinars during the pandemic about online learning, there was a solid program of engagement with the sector during 2019-20. This included a very well attended and received TEQSA Conference; consultations about the review of the TEQSA risk assessment framework attended by 80 per cent of providers; twenty workshops around Australia to promote academic integrity, as well as meetings with professional accreditation bodies, TEQSA’s Student Expert Advisory Group, TEQSA Experts and international quality agencies and networks to discuss quality and regulatory issues.
TEQSA worked closely with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and the Higher Education Standards Panel on the development of legislation, instruments and policies in relation to contract cheating, freedom of speech, the Australian Qualifications Framework, professional accreditation, credit recognition, Provider Category Standards in the Higher Education Standards Framework, and student records.
Work on the sector-wide issues of the transparency of admission processes, student retention, sexual assault and sexual harassment, and English language admission standards also continued or was initiated during the year to address risks to the reputation of the sector. Sector-wide issues will also be a focus of the recently-announced Higher Education Integrity Unit which will have a focus on data and policy analysis to identify drivers of risk to the integrity of the sector and will employ strategies to address those risks.
The agency chose not to undertake a survey of stakeholders in 2020 in light of the pressures on providers due to the pandemic and, consequently, some aspects of TEQSA's performance were not able to be measured against some targets set out in the Corporate Plan 2019-23 that relied on the results of the survey. In addition, some activities (Cycle 7 risk assessment, the compliance review of ELICOS providers and the consultation on revised cost recovery arrangements) were not undertaken due to the pandemic. Taking the impact of the pandemic into account, the agency achieved three of its four objectives and partially achieved one objective. Overall, the agency largely achieved its performance objectives against the corporate plan for 2019-20.
ANAO PERFORMANCE AUDIT
Between July 2019 and March 2020, the ANAO undertook a performance audit of TEQSA’s regulation of high education. The audit found that TEQSA was effective or largely effective in all but the area of compliance and enforcement activities, which was an area where improvement initiatives were underway or had been planned. The audit required dedicated internal resourcing from its commencement until the report was finalised and provided the agency with further insights into improving operations.
In January 2020, the agency farewelled Dr Lin Martin AO as a TEQSA Commissioner. Dr Martin joined TEQSA in 2015 and was instrumental in the agency’s approach to equity and higher education administration.
In March 2020, the agency farewelled Mr Anthony McClaran as the TEQSA Chief Executive Officer. Mr McClaran joined TEQSA in 2015 and led the agency in its reformed relationship with the sector, approach to engagement and the recent growth of the agency.
In May 2020, Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake AO commenced as a TEQSA Commissioner, having recently completed the review of the Provider Category Standards of the HES Framework.
The commencement of revised cost recovery arrangements was delayed by the government to July 2021 due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.
TEQSA has developed a revised approach to risk assessments to monitor the financial impact of the pandemic on providers and will provide the government with advice regarding the financial standing of the sector.
TEQSA will, in addition to monitoring risks due to the disruption caused by the pandemic on providers, continue to support the welfare of TEQSA staff for the benefit of staff wellbeing and the productivity of the agency.
In 2021, changes to TEQSA’s information technology and information management, which began in 2019-20, will continue to contribute improvements to the operation of the agency including increasingly sophisticated approaches to monitoring risks. Through its new Higher Education Integrity Unit, the agency will be building on the work undertaken to date on academic integrity. This work will include using the new legislation that enables the blocking of websites offering contract cheating services and working with the sector to develop strategies to address identified other risks to the interests of students and to the reputation of the sector.
Professor Nicholas Saunders AO
Chief Commissioner on behalf of the accountable authority