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The importance of governance

11 December 2018

The following piece appeared in The Australian Higher Education section on 4 December 2018 and was written by TEQSA's Director of Assurance Group, Michael Tomlinson.

With respect it's clear governance is the key

The importance of strong academic governance within a higher education provider cannot be overstated; its significance is evident in the lengthy discussions that have taken place in these pages.

As Australia’s higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s mission is to ensure that quality is maintained, students are protected and the sector’s reputation, at home and abroad, is upheld.

One of the most effective ways we do this is through putting the governance mechanisms and structures of all higher education providers under the microscope on a cyclical basis. The higher education standards framework has student outcomes front and centre, and ensuring students achieve their course outcomes at the right level is all important. Governance shapes the environment in which this occurs.

When we encounter failures in achievement of student learning outcomes, we need to inquire into the causes. Often we can trace the problems back through deficiencies in the learning environment to failures in oversight by the governing bodies.

In recent times, lacklustre governance has resulted in more than 80 per cent of TEQSA’s ­adverse decisions on provider registration and re-registration.

Governance, both academic and corporate, represents an ­essential control on risk, and a bastion of academic quality.

When we look to assure the quality of governance arrangements, we are certainly aware of the power imbalance between academic governing bodies and management. In my discussions, I acknowledge that the academic board, like the Pope, has no legions. The presiding officer has no authority to ­direct managers or staff to allocate resources to get something done.

Nonetheless, an academic governing body has the ability to internally regulate course quality, monitor student outcomes and exert considerable influence — and we expect that influence to be heeded.

Without strong, respected academic governance structures performing these functions, a higher education provider is likely to fall in breach of multiple higher education standards.

The standards do not prescribe any particular structure for academic governance or any particular relationship with management. However, for a provider to operate effectively and efficiently, a strong and respectful relationship must be fostered between the corporate and academic governing bodies and management.

This respectful relationship should allow academic governing bodies to have a fundamental influence on the operations of a provider. The corporate governing body will set corporate directions; set and monitor performance targets; proactively identify and mitigate risks; monitor financial viability and sustainability; and influence corporate culture. This frees the academic governance to provide competent academic oversight and monitoring of all academic activities at the institutional level and below.

If there are issues with the intersection of responsibility, or a power imbalance that results in failures in quality, the standards require each provider to commission periodic external reviews of corporate and academic governance, and these external reviews should bring such issues to the surface.

When we embark on assessing a provider’s application for ­renewal of registration, our first task is quite literally to review these reviews. We do not take them at face value. If necessary, we will seek to validate their findings directly, especially if they lack the required credibility.

Where the external reviews are credible and find that the governing bodies are functioning well and are themselves effectively monitoring compliance with the standards, TEQSA can step back and let the provider get on with it. So our initial approach will be to find out if a provider’s structures and processes for self-assurance are working.

If so, there is no need for us to intervene. But if they are not ­evidently working, we need to delve further.

But our preferred scenario is to establish that all providers are regulating themselves so effectively that all we need to do is maintain some high-level, soft-touch monitoring.

Academic governing bodies are key allies in bringing this ­desirable state of ­affairs about, ­regardless of perceived or actual imbalances of power.

View the full article on The Australian's website (Note: website has paywall)