Our approach to quality assurance and regulation
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 (TEQSA Act) established TEQSA as Australia’s single national quality assurance and regulatory agency for higher education.
While the TEQSA Act identifies a significant number of objects, the core elements are to apply a standards- and risk-based quality framework to protecting and promoting the interests of higher education students and the reputation of the higher education sector.
The standards that TEQSA is required to apply are set out in the Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015 (the HES Framework). These standards are determined by the Minister for Education on advice from an expert Higher Education Standards Panel, which consults widely with the higher education sector before providing its advice.
All institutions that wish to offer an Australian higher education course in or from Australia must apply to be registered by TEQSA and, after initial registration, they must apply to TEQSA for renewal of their registration at least once every seven years. The National Register of Higher Education Providers (the National Register) identifies all providers that have been registered by TEQSA—those that are currently registered as well as those that have been registered in the past.
To be registered by TEQSA and subsequently have their registration renewed, providers must demonstrate that they meet, and continue to meet, the HES Framework.
Unless they have been granted Self Accrediting Authority for some or all of their courses of study, providers must also have their courses of study accredited by TEQSA before they are offered to students. Re-accreditation is required every seven years.
Application guides for provider registration, renewal of registration, course accreditation and renewal of accreditation, as well as other application types, are available from our Application guides and support section.
At present, universities have self-accrediting authority for all of their courses of study, and a small number of non-university providers have self-accrediting authority for some or all of their courses. The HES Framework sets out the requirements for gaining Self Accrediting Authority, the core of which is that a provider must have demonstrated that it has robust internal quality assurance mechanisms for developing and approving courses and for reviewing and updating them from time to time.
At the time of initial registration, TEQSA must decide which category the provider should be registered in. The categories are:
- Higher Education Provider
- Australian University
- Australian University College
- Australian University of Specialisation
- Overseas University
- Overseas University of Specialisation
The criteria for registration in each of these categories are set out in Part B1 (‘Classification of Higher Education Providers’) of the HES Framework, and providers can apply for a change of category. TEQSA must assess their applications against the criteria before granting a category change.
The Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 (ESOS Act) identifies TEQSA as the agency responsible for regulating, under that Act, all providers delivering higher education—as well as some providers delivering ELICOS and Foundation Programs—to onshore overseas students. Providers in all categories that wish to offer higher education courses to overseas students must be registered on the Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students (CRICOS). CRICOS identifies both the providers and the courses that have been registered. The ESOS Act and associated National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students 2018 (the National Code), National Standards for Foundation Programs and ELICOS Standards 2018, set out the obligations of providers offering courses to overseas students.
Overarching regulatory philosophy
In keeping with contemporary trends in quality assurance and regulation, TEQSA’s approach:
- is standards-based, risk-reflective and transparent
- places a significant emphasis on promoting and facilitating a culture of effective self-assurance as an integral part of a provider’s ordinary operations (as required by the HES Framework)
- uses ‘variable-touch’ regulation, in which regulatory intervention is no greater than is required to achieve a necessary regulatory purpose
- is based on a preferred model of respectful regulatory partnerships, with individual providers and with the sector overall.
The TEQSA Act establishes a broad framework for TEQSA’s overall approach to higher education, and the ESOS Act (and associated instruments such as the National Code) adds further requirements relating only to providers that deliver courses to international students in Australia on student visas. Aside from the TEQSA Act, the definitive reference point for TEQSA’s overarching regulatory approach is the Higher Education Standards Framework and the Threshold Standards it comprises, which providers are required to meet and continue to meet at all times. As discussed below, TEQSA exercises discretion in its application of the HES Framework for individual providers according to:
- the circumstances and regulatory standing of the provider
- an analysis of risks
- the maturity and effectiveness of the provider’s internal quality assurance and monitoring processes.
In doing so, TEQSA aims to promote efficient and effective approaches to assessment and monitoring, while minimising the regulatory burden it places on higher education providers.
Risk-based approach reflecting three principles in the TEQSA Act
TEQSA embraces the three basic principles of regulation that are enshrined in the TEQSA Act:
- regulatory necessity (only taking regulatory action where there is no effective alternative for achieving compliance)
- reflecting risk (informing regulation through identification of risks to quality, reflecting the provider’s track record and regulatory history)
- proportionate regulation (the more serious the risk, the stronger the regulatory action).
The practical application of these principles is elaborated below.
In exercising its powers and complying with the expectations of the TEQSA Act, ESOS Act and other legislative requirements, TEQSA minimises its regulatory requirements to only those that it sees as necessary. It does not burden higher education providers any more than is reasonably necessary given risks to students, educational quality and/or sector reputation. Collection of information from providers is based on the principle of ‘collect once, use many times’ to minimise information gathering burdens on providers.
TEQSA also works with other regulatory bodies and government agencies to reduce unnecessary or duplicative requirements imposed on higher education providers.
TEQSA’s need for and level of regulatory action or intervention, and the evidence required of a provider, all reflect the assessed risk of the provider’s likely non-compliance with the HES Framework. This is based on annual risk assessments using the TEQSA Risk Assessment Framework as well as other relevant factors, such as the provider’s record of compliance with relevant legislative requirements, and matters relating to the level of risk of potential non-compliance in the future.
In determining the level of risk, TEQSA has particular regard to the entity’s regulatory history, its history of scholarship, teaching, research and student experiences, as well as to its financial status, its maturity of development as a provider, and its financial sustainability.
TEQSA’s regulatory actions are proportionate to the nature, severity and extent of any identified non-compliance or risk of non-compliance that needs to be addressed. Regulatory action taken is stronger the greater the risks to quality. Proportionate, differentiated approaches enable providers of different sizes, business models and operational histories to operate in Australia’s diverse higher education system, provided they meet, and continue to meet, regulatory requirements.
TEQSA’s approach begins with an emphasis on providing information and guidance to support providers to meet their regulatory obligations. TEQSA’s actions will ultimately be informed by the severity of any non-compliance—or risks of non-compliance—identified.
Several factors are considered in determining an appropriate action, including the severity and persistence of a breach, risks to students and/or risks of reputational damage to the sector, and the willingness and capability of the provider to manage risks to students.
When TEQSA talks about risk it primarily means the risk of current or future provider non-compliance, and associated risks to quality, to students, and to the reputation of the Australian higher education sector. TEQSA cannot know everything about all of the higher education providers in the sector. On the basis of information TEQSA does have, it makes judgements about risk to inform the way it approaches evidence collection and assessments.
This meaning of risk—understood as the risk that a provider does not or will not meet its legislative obligations (that is, compliance risk)—is different from the meaning of risk associated with innovation and change. TEQSA acknowledges that innovation often involves a degree of risk taking and, while the HES Framework requires that risks to a provider’s operations are understood and mitigated, TEQSA does not expect that all such risks can or should be eliminated.
TEQSA applies a systematic, structured and consistent approach to assessing compliance risk across all providers, using a standard set of risk indicators corresponding to primary areas of institutional practice and performance. This approach, as described in TEQSA’s Risk Assessment Framework, is critical for TEQSA in delivering efficient and effective risk-based quality assurance and regulatory activities. The Risk Assessment Framework outlines the key steps and components of the risk assessment process, and provides detailed supporting information on the risk indicators used.
While TEQSA applies its Risk Assessment Framework consistently, it nonetheless recognises the diversity—in terms of sizes, missions and student cohorts—in the sector, and the importance of a provider’s context in assessing potential risks. To support this view in practice, TEQSA’s risk assessment process takes account of a provider’s history, sector context and the provider’s own risk management practices.
Individual risk analyses are augmented by continued monitoring of risks to individual providers, to courses and to the overall integrity of Australia’s higher education system. Ongoing monitoring is further facilitated through the sharing of intelligence with other agencies, as well as through other channels of information such as complaints and media coverage of significant issues. TEQSA’s understanding of a provider’s prevailing risks of non-compliance is also enhanced as the provider establishes its track record and regulatory history by completing on-going cycles of re-registration and re-accreditation.
Risk-based assessments and the 'Core Plus' model
TEQSA’s approach to cyclical assessments of providers and courses of study is varied—and tailored to the circumstances of the provider—according to the level of risks identified by TEQSA. The amount of evidence required, and the likely pathway that will be experienced by a provider through an assessment, are influenced in particular by the status of the provider in the registration cycle—whether, for example, it is a prospective provider seeking initial registration, or an established provider seeking re-registration or course (re)accreditation.
Initial registration applications are assessed against all Standards in the HES Framework—so that TEQSA can ensure that new providers will be able to meet the Standards, notwithstanding the new provider’s absence of a higher education track record and a regulatory history with TEQSA at the time of its initial application.
For established providers, application of TEQSA’s Core Plus model of assessment is a major practical manifestation of TEQSA’s risk-based approach, which aims to reduce administrative costs to providers in meeting TEQSA’s evidence requirements. Under this model, all applicants are required to submit a minimum set of evidence relating to an identified set of core Standards in the HES Framework (i.e. core evidence). These relate principally to governance, student performance and student experience. Some providers will be required to submit additional evidence (i.e. core plus) against other selected standards on a case-by-case basis, as determined by the provider’s risk profile, track record and demonstrated capacity for self-assurance. Providers assessed as presenting a high risk to students will be assessed against all relevant standards, except for those standards where the provider has recently demonstrated to TEQSA that the requirements of those standards are already met and will continue to be met.
Maintaining relationships with providers
As part of its commitment to a preferred partnership model of regulation, and consistent with its organisational values, TEQSA seeks to establish constructive, positive relationships with providers and the sector, based on mutual respect. This is enabled by developing a close working relationship between providers and their case managers as well as broader interactions between the sector, other stakeholders and the TEQSA Commissioners, Chief Executive and senior staff.
TEQSA will respectfully seek outcomes in accordance with the objects of the TEQSA Act, particularly in the interests of achieving quality student experiences and maintaining and enhancing the reputation of higher education in Australia. Where TEQSA is required to exercise its regulatory powers, this will be consistent with principles of procedural fairness.
As part of its commitment to partnerships with individual providers and the sector more broadly, TEQSA offers guidance and support to providers including:
- guidance on requirements (e.g. guidance notes)
- a case management approach
- disseminating data on sector performance
- consultation forums for providers and other stakeholders
- an on-line application portal
- the National Register of Higher Education Providers.
Guidance and advice
TEQSA’s primary means for providing advice is its publication of guidance notes. The purpose of guidance notes is to provide greater clarity for providers on TEQSA’s interpretation and application of selected areas of the HES Framework. Guidance notes are regularly updated and cover a range of topics. A full list of guidance notes is available from our Guidance notes page.
Case managers build relationships with providers to assist them in making applications, tailoring evidence requirements (e.g. for Core Plus), and related matters such as interpreting and refining TEQSA’s risk analyses and providing specific assistance in clarifying and resolving issues (e.g. in identifying what is seen as a material change to the provider’s operations). More broadly, case managers establish and maintain ongoing engagement with providers.
Data collection, analysis and dissemination
TEQSA collects key information about providers from a range of sources including from higher education providers themselves, from the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training and from relevant state and Commonwealth agencies.
TEQSA collects this key information and uses it to improve policy and program development and outcomes by:
- monitoring and assessing the performance of individual providers
- identifying trends, risks or issues across the sector
- developing and reporting on analyses of the sector.
Find out more from our How we use data page.
TEQSA maintains a program of consultations with the sector to raise issues, explain new directions or policies and gather feedback to improve its quality assurance and regulatory activities. Find out more from our Consultations page.
The Provider Portal allows providers to build, revise and store applications (with the assistance of templates) through a transparent and consistent process that is subject to continuing refinement. Find out more from our Provider Portal page.
National Register of Higher Education Providers
TEQSA maintains a free and searchable online public register (‘the National Register’) of all higher education providers, which includes information about its decisions on the registration and accreditation status of providers and their courses. It also includes information on decisions arising from compliance monitoring and other enforcement action. Find out more from our About the National Register page.
TEQSA uses a graduated scale of actions, starting with the least burdensome option that is likely to facilitate compliance with the HES Framework. In most cases, this will mean beginning at lower levels of a pyramid of sanctions (Figure 1.) and moving upwards only when circumstances require it.
TEQSA’s approach to compliance and enforcement can be found in the publication TEQSA’s Approach to Compliance and Enforcement.
Regulatory action commonly ranges (escalates) from TEQSA providing education and support, to communication of concerns in writing, to requesting information and reporting, to imposing conditions on provider’s registration and/or conditions on course accreditation, up to approving registration or accreditation for a period less than the full seven years or, in extreme cases, cancelling registration.
The most common conditions TEQSA applies include requiring the provider to undertake specific actions to ensure compliance, or to undertake analysis and reporting on student outcomes and staff profiles, or requiring the provider to conduct an internal or external review of an aspect of its operations—most often in relation to corporate or academic governance or internal quality assurance—and detailing its actions in response to the review.
Where TEQSA is still not satisfied with a provider’s capacity to meet the necessary standards, TEQSA may resort to action near the top of the pyramid—including rejection of an application or deregistering a provider, where this is considered to be the only way of protecting the interests of students and the reputation or the sector.
Figure 1. TEQSA's graduated approach to exercising formal powers
The pyramid of sanctions is based on a model developed by Ian Ayres and John Braithwaite, Responsive Regulation: Transcending the Deregulation Debate, Oxford University Press, 1992, p.35.
From time to time a provider may disagree with a decision taken by TEQSA and seek to have it reviewed. A review of a decision is a formal process, and reviewable decisions are specified under the TEQSA Act. There are three broad options for review:
- internal review of decisions, where the full Commission has not made the initial decision
- merits review of decisions made by TEQSA in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT)
- judicial review of administrative decisions.
Find out more from our Review of TEQSA decisions page.
In addition to its internal performance monitoring and annual reports to Parliament, TEQSA is required to report to the Commonwealth on its regulatory performance against the Australian Government’s Regulator Performance Framework. Find out more, or view our regulator performance framework report, from our Corporate plan and performance reporting page.
TEQSA also obtains feedback directly from providers, from its various consultative processes with peak bodies and other stakeholders and from staff, all of which contributes to TEQSA’s internal continuous improvement processes. This has resulted in several significant improvements such as the development of the Core Plus assessment process, streamlining information gathering, an improved on line portal, and streamlined regulation under the ESOS Act.