May 22, 2019

Third-party players vital to sector’s success

Keith Houghton and Matt Brett

Readers of The Australian’s higher education pages last week (May 15) would have seen two articles, “Surge in third parties is like the ‘wild west’ ” and “Digital delivery redefines the efficiency frontier”.

Readers might falsely conflate the articles to conclude that improved efficiency can be achieved through third-party arrangements and lower quality outcomes.

However, it needs to be remembered that third-party arrangements have been a 

The government’s Higher Education Standards Framework makes reference to “delivery with other parties” spanning work-integrated learning, placements, community-based learning and research training.

Third-party arrangements in this definition includes arrangements with schools for teachers in training, arrangements with hospitals for medical training, and so on. The scope extends to accounting firms, engineering works and hospitality organisations among others.

No one seriously disputes the quality or legitimacy of these arrangements as the provider has demonstrated expertise within their specialist field.

That said, third-party arrangements are changing. Both the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the federal Department of Education and Training rely on the quality assurance processes within individual universities. The expectation is that universities will oversee, monitor and regulate the work of third-party providers.

Some may argue this needs reconsideration in the light of changes in the sector because there has been significant growth in the outsourcing of certain educational activities by some universities; and these can be large in scale.

One estimate has third-party teaching accounting for as much as one-fifth of the student population of one university.

Currently, the higher education data collection does not capture nor publish all relevant information on third-party arrangements. Capturing such information is desirable and should acknowledge the spectrum of activity for which there is no established taxonomy. The “specialist” and “large scale” dichotomy would be a starting point.

Recent TEQSA decisions around re-registration of two universities have imposed conditions including quality assurance of third-party arrangements. The regulator now recognises the issue and is acting.

Careful governance and quality control processes are needed. This may be particularly true where an entire degree program can be delivered by a third party.

Governance measures could ensure, for example, that third-party arrangements have clear and direct oversight by a university’s academic board which is independent of commercial influence.

There are many examples of strong, independent academic boards; but there is room for improvement with others.

One review within a Group of Eight university recommended strengthened oversight of a private provider by that university’s academic board.

We would argue that one should set aside any perception that education provided by a third party must — by definition — be inferior.

With appropriate policy settings, quality assurance and data transparency, we may find that third-party arrangements, particularly in digitally delivered education, play a valuable and vital role in an efficient, effective and innovative education sector.

Keith Houghton is chief academic strategist at the Higher Education and Research Group and a former dean of business and economics at the Australian National University. Matt Brett is director academic standards and governance at Deakin University.