Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Lessons from Australia for the regulation of English higher education – by Anthony McClaran

  • 8 June 2023
  • By Anthony McClaran

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new paper on the regulation of English higher education by Anthony McClaran, the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a former Chief Executive of both the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

Good Regulation: Lessons for England from the Australian Experience (HEPI Policy Note 47) notes that, while there is opposition to the statutory regulation of higher education institutions, it brings clear potential advantages, including: clarity; a sanctions regime; recognition of the public purpose of institutions; accountability to democratic authorities; and protection for students and others.

The paper concludes with some possible lessons for England as the position of the Office for Students continues to be widely debated, as well as formally reviewed by the House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee:

  • Securing independence through checks and balances, with real accountability, not only because independence is a statutory requirement but because visible independence is essential to trust and therefore to the assurance of students, taxpayers, stakeholders and international audiences.
  • Putting regulatory judgement through rigorous challenge, both inside the regulator’s structures and beyond – this can go hand in hand with an approach which subjects proposed interventions to the tests of risk, proportionality and necessity.
  • Recognising the role that a regulator can play in delivering sector-wide responses to the great thematic challenges that inevitably arise in institutions as large, complex and embedded in our society as higher education institutions.

Anthony McClaran, the author of the report, said:

During my career, I have seen England’s higher education system move from self-regulation to co-regulation to external statutory regulation via the Office for Students.

In my time leading the main regulator of the tertiary sector in Australia, I saw how effective good statutory regulation can be. But it took a few years for Australia to reach its current situation, as there were initially concerns about regulatory burden, excessive bureaucracy and problematic communication – all of which we now hear from some in England.

The lessons from Australia include the importance of a risk-based approach, sensible rather than overblown data requests and treating providers as partners rather than merely objects.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said:

When comparing higher education systems around the world, you quickly see that England and Australia have a huge amount in common. However, while the two countries’ university systems tend to track one another, Australia’s higher education system is smaller and often one step ahead. For example, Australia introduced income-contingent tuition fee loans before anywhere in the UK and it removed student number caps before England did.

This clear report shows the two countries are also tracking each other when it comes to regulation. The main Australian regulator, TEQSA, was regularly accused of overstretching itself in its first few years – just as England’s Office for Students is often accused of the same. But the situation down under has abated and the Australian experience might therefore offer some useful lessons.

Peter Nikoletatos, Global Industry General Manager Education and Adjunct Professor at TechnologyOne, who have kindly sponsored the report, said:

Higher Education regulation plays a vital role in ensuring quality, accessibility, and accountability in the sector. England can draw valuable lessons from Australia’s experience in this regard. 

Australia’s effective regulatory framework has yielded positive outcomes. Robust quality assurance mechanisms, such as the TEQSA as Professor McClaran espouses, have enhanced the overall standards of higher education institutions. Transparent reporting and accountability measures have fostered public trust and confidence. 

Moreover, Australia’s strong emphasis on student protection, including tuition fee regulation and safeguards against unscrupulous practices, has created a fair and secure environment for learners.

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. It is UK-wide, independent and non-partisan, and funded by organisations and higher education institutions that want to see vibrant policy discussions.
  2. Anthony McClaran has been the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University since April 2020. He was previously the Chief Executive of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in Australia from 2015 to 2020, Chief Executive of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) from 2009 to 2015 and Chief Executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) from 2003 to 2009. He has held a number of governance roles at all levels of education and was Chair of Council and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire from 2007 to 2009. Anthony is currently Chair of GuildHE and in June 2021 was appointed by Pope Francis to the Board of AVEPRO, the Holy See’s HE quality assurance agency.
  3. HEPI’s previous reports on the Australian higher education system include: Andrew Norton, After demand driven funding in Australia (HEPI Report 128); Nick Hillman, A comparison of student loans in England and Australia (HEPI Report 66, April 2014); and Andrew Norton, Unleashing student demand by ending number controls in Australia: An incomplete experiment? (HEPI Report 68, August 2014). The HEPI website also includes recent blogs about lessons from Australia, including The implications of not having an independent Designated Quality Body – and lessons from abroad by Dr Elizabeth Halford and Michael Wells (13 February 2023) and Beyond the transactional: Three lessons from Australia for Foreign Direct Investment in research and development (R&D) by Professor Aleks Subic (17 March 2023).

1 comment

  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    I can’t find the report.

    One may also note that Australia established its analogues to polytechnics which it called colleges of advanced education in 1967 after the UK established its polys in 1965 but that it dismantled its binary divide in higher education from 1989 which the UK followed in 1992.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *