Teqsa warns against attempts to game university status rules

Australian regulator advises against shortcuts, such as recruiting moonlighting big hitters, as universities confront new research quality benchmarks

February 1, 2023
Melbourne, Australia - December 14, 2019 Street artist dressed as Darth Vader playing electric guitar
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Australian institutions will not be able to enlist star or moonlighting academics to meet the research quality benchmarks that determine university status, the higher education regulator has warned.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Teqsa) has listed the red flags that “may prompt closer scrutiny” that universities’ research is up to scratch.

They include an “overreliance” on particular researchers, projects or subfields without “appropriate contingency plans” if a key researcher leaves or a project falls over.

Universities must also satisfy Teqsa that their research investment is sustained. For example, temporarily hiring other universities’ “high-profile researchers” will not convince the regulator that steps are being taken “to maintain research quality”.

Teqsa has been given the job of evaluating whether universities meet the minimum research requirements recommended by the reviewer of Australia’s provider category standards, Peter Coaldrake, who has since become the agency’s chief commissioner.

To maintain their registration, established universities will have to demonstrate that they conduct “world standard” research in at least half the broad fields of education in which they offer courses. New universities face a lower 30 per cent benchmark for the first decade of operations.

But questions over the policing of these requirements include how to judge “world standard”. In a new guidance note, Teqsa acknowledges the difficulties.

One is that the new rules are based on fields of education, while most research assessment systems – including Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) – are based on fields of research. To overcome this technicality, Teqsa has produced a “concordance table” matching research and education fields.

Another problem is that ERA, the most obvious mechanism for measuring universities’ compliance with the new rules, may not survive long enough to do the job. Australian Research Council reviewer Margaret Shiel has suggested it may be time to scrap the exercise, arguing that the time and resources involved “may be better redirected”.

But Teqsa says it “will adapt to any research regime changes”, relying on “indicators and quality metrics that are common and accepted”.

The agency suggests that it will not be swayed by ploys to embellish research profiles, including the recruitment of star researchers to inflate institutional metrics. University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones said this was a common strategy among lower-tier institutions concerned about accreditation – not just the top-ranked universities eyeing the global rankings.

“They target fields of research where you can just turn out publications – coaching psychology; counselling; nutritionists as opposed to medical or pharmaceutical researchers. They’re not hiring star chemists because that’s very expensive.”

Teqsa says it will also take a close look when universities’ research quality claims have not been externally benchmarked, or rely on publications that have not been peer reviewed.

The new rules do not impose the “world standard” benchmark on research in fields of national significance that are “not easily captured by existing standard indicators”. But claims that such research cannot be compared internationally will invite scepticism, Teqsa suggests.


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