Dean Forbes



Australian International Education Conference

Melbourne, 5th October 2012

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University

Prescribing standards is another means of regulating for the purpose of achieving consistency in the quality of higher education. TEQSA (the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) has responsibility for assessing the Standards set down in legislation in the TEQSA Act 2011.

The Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP), chaired by Alan Robson, provides advice to the Government on the standards, and is required to commence a review of the Threshold Standards by January 2013. It also provides a periodic Communique to the sector.

The former model of university QA adopted a moderated self-assessment approach, managed by the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA).

In the AUQA approach ‘standards’ were measured by a range of means, including trend data. Trends could be up, or down, or flat or chaotic, and hence good or bad depending on the variables. Data benchmarking with individual universities, or groups of universities, helped provide a further sense of standards. The Government’s annual Institutional Performance Portfolio continues to use this method to track how well universities are doing.

Now we have in place the Threshold Standards: Provider Registration; Provider Category; Provider Course Accreditation; and Qualification Standards. They draw in part on the previous National Protocols and Australian Qualifications Framework.

TEQSA’s current task is to gauge compliance with the Threshold Standards, beginning with Provider Registration.

Flinders has this year been involved in the Provider Registration process. It has involved a substantial amount of work collecting and organising data, much of it useful in its own right, but also much of it duplicating (but with twists) information provided to Government for other purposes. I note that Carol Nicoll (AFR 27/8/12) has put in train legislative amendments to enable TEQSA to access the information collected by Government but which it currently cannot release toTEQSA.  

There is a need for better, interconnected, performance-related data in universities. Flinders is part of an IRU benchmarking project drawing on a template developed by the Group of Eight. New models of international student data management, such as the Prism database developed by the ICG Group, are increasingly in demand internationally, as universities expand their international student programs.

A set of Non-Threshold Standards including, Teaching and Learning Standards, Research Standards and Information Standards are to be developed. However, according to the HESP, there will be no regulation of these standards. It believes the Threshold Standards are the center-piece. However, the Panel poses the question of the extent to which elements of the Non-Threshold Standards should be included in the Threshold Standards.


How does this impact on international education, and what are the issues concerning the managers of international education? Two come to mind.

First, the revamped AQF is an area of tension. Despite Bologna and other well-intentioned attempts at harmonisation of degree programs, there remains significant diversity across the world. Universities must be competitive in a global market and there can be friction when they are forced to deal with unnecessarily rigid frameworks.

Within the AQF significant hotspots include the length and content of the Masters degree, the structure of professional doctorates and the future recognition of short courses, especially those delivered online. In particular, it raises fundamental questions about the purposes of the cluster of postgraduate coursework programs connected with Masters degrees.

Second, HESP has a membership of five. It includes senior university managers representing academic affairs and research. There are no recognised specialists in international education, although PVC/DVC portfolios with international education responsibilities exist in universities across almost the entire sector.

HESP is very active in communicating with stakeholders. This will increase, in all likelihood, when the review of Threshold Standards is underway.

More broadly, where do we stand in terms of peer review? It was a vital part of AUQA’s approach, and is deeply embedded in academic and university culture, and should have a role to play in a standards-based regulatory environment. It is intended that there be a Register of Experts but no details are yet available, apart from knowing there will be no AUQA-like panels.


TEQSA has determined that English language and third party arrangements are priority thematic areas in need of closer attention.

English language is an ongoing challenge for universities, both for international and local students.

A set of Six English Language Standards for Higher Education Providers in Australia has been developed (Table 1). The standards are based on the Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for International Students in Australian Universities. While currently not part of the regulatory framework, one assumes they are advisory. They are available on the DEEWR/DIISTRTE website.

Table 1: Six English Language Standards for Higher Education Providers in Australia

1.  The provider ensures that its students are sufficiently proficient in English to participate effectively in their higher education studies on entry.

2.  The provider ensures that prospective and current students are informed about their responsibilities for further developing their English language proficiency during their studies.

3.  The provider ensures that resourcing for English language development meets students’ needs throughout their studies.

4.  The provider actively develops students’ English language proficiency.

5.  The provider ensures that students are appropriately proficient in English when they graduate.

6.  The provider uses evidence from a variety of sources to monitor and improve its support for the development of students’ English language proficiency.

Source: DEEWR 2012

The Standards are, of course, highly Provider oriented. A challenge in this regard is the need for adequate resourcing (Standard 3). Doing justice to the six English Language Standards is expensive.

Missing from the Standards, but critical in the Good Practice Principles on which they are based, is the need to get students to be pro-active with regards to English. This means getting students to take responsibility for continuing to learn English (Principle 3), and to be socially active on and off campus in activities that enhance their English skills (Principle 9). Students have a tendency to prefer the comfort zone attached to their own language group that is not easy to change.

The focus on third party arrangements has not yet been elaborated.

In the first instance, we need a clear definition from TEQSA about what constitutes a third party arrangement. DIISRTE, at the request of Minister Evans, issued a request for information on universities’ domestic third party teaching arrangements in July.

Is TEQSA prioritising domestic third party arrangements or will this extend internationally to include, for example, transnational education? Will the focus be on programs where content is delivered by a third party, as was the case in the request in July?

Does the definition spread wider to include agent partnerships, and other commercial arrangements that may involve students?

It will be important to know the intentions of this scrutiny; what does it seek to achieve? There have been suggestions that the outcome will potentially be incorporated into consideration of a university’s Threshold Standards. Is this correct?

I am aware that a number of universities have commenced identifying and drawing together information on what they regard as their international third party agreements.


Quality has been an important factor in decisions to study in Australia. In the International Student Survey 2010 three of the top four factors in choosing to come to Australia were quality related: 94% of those surveyed cited the quality of teaching; 93% the reputation of the qualification; and 91% the reputation of the institution.

However international students across the globe are not as positive. More than 75% of students interviewed by the Institute of International Education thought the US provided quality higher education (Chow 2011). The UK followed, then Canada, Germany and France.

Australia ranked sixth. Just under one in five students thought Australia had a high quality higher education system.

Graduate outcomes, and student and graduate perceptions of the quality of Australian higher education must be on a path of continuous improvement if we are to remain competitive.

Will the new model of standards-based regulation improve the quality and the perception of quality in Australian higher education? This is what the universities will be following very closely.


Thanks to Chris Reid and Melinda Pike for helping me to untangle some of the issues discussed in this paper.


AUQA  Australian Universities Quality Agency

DEEWR  Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

DIISRTE  Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

TEQSA  Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency


AEI (Australian Education International) 2010 International Student Survey 2010. Overview Report, Canberra

Chow, Patricia 2011 What International Students Think About US Higher Education: Attitudes and Perceptions of Prospective Students in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, Institute of International Education, New York

Forbes, Dean 2011 ‘The Australian Qualifications Framework: Providing (Extra) Certainty for Mobile Students’, The Australian Qualifications Framework Making a Difference: A Symposium and AQF Launch, Melbourne 23 June 2011

Regulator must value 'international nuance'

The Australian

03 Oct 2012, by Andrew Trounson

Higher Education, page 31 - 117.53 cm²

National - circulation 129,363 (MTWTF)


THE higher education regulator needs to ensure it has the expertise to understand "nuances" in international education as it applies its new standards framework, Flinders University's Dean Forbes has warned. "This is a big and highly complex part of the university sector.

We need to know that the people managing the standards framework have a capacity to understand the nuances that come from a deeper understanding of what happens in international education," Professor Forbes, who is deputy vice-chancellor (international) at Flinders, said.

The decision by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to create a register of sector experts, presumably to consult with, was a positive move, he said. Several former Australian University Quality Agency auditors, including himself, had been approached to be on the proposed register, but details of how it might work remained unclear.

While TEQSA was not targeting international education specifically, Professor Forbes said its stated focus on English language standards and third parties was obviously highly relevant to the sector.

It was uncertain what benefits the new standards-based approach to regulation would eventually deliver to international education compared with the previous AUQA system of moderated self-assessment. "One of the great successes of AUQA, despite all the complaints that universities made, was that people really did look at how they were doing things and they did put in place much stronger quality assurance frameworks than they had before."

He said there was an upside to the new standards model as it provided better focus on assuring that graduates and qualifications were what universities say they were.

On the downside, the Australian Qualifications Framework might constrain the ability of universities to offer qualifications in line with overseas trends. "We are operating in a global, highly competitive market and there are some points where we rub up against the AQF in terms of our need to be flexible and responsive to international demands." Professor Forbes said.

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