Regulator Anoints First Australian University College

A church-owned institution has been given permission to rebadge itself as Australia’s first university college, on the same day a government-appointed reviewer said the category should be abolished.
Avondale College’s feat “was considered impossible by a lot of people”, according to its president, Ray Roennfeldt. It will become only the third newcomer to Australian university ranks this century, after the Melbourne College of Divinity rebadged itself as the University of Divinity in 2012, and Torrens University opened in Adelaide in 2014.
Avondale’s elevation also marks the first time Australia’s national higher education regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), has allowed an institution to change categories.
Avondale is currently classified as a “higher education provider”, a catch-all grouping encompassing a hotchpotch of some 130 disparate colleges.
TEQSA chief executive Anthony McClaran said Avondale’s approval as a university college “increases quality and choice for students, and further bolsters Australia’s world-class tertiary education sector”.
TEQSA said it had approved the change on 28 August. The same day, former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake – who is reviewing the provider category standards for higher education providers – said he would recommend that the university college category be jettisoned.
Professor Coaldrake said there had been no entrants to the category since its creation in 2011. “That tells you that either it’s not relevant or it’s unobtainable,” he told a conference in Brisbane.
“The reality is that if an institution were to make the Australian university college category under current arrangements they probably would have gone very close indeed to having secured the requirements for the Australian university category.”
The future of university colleges has been one of the most contentious issues faced by the review. While many submissions said the category should be scrapped, others said the requirements were too onerous and should be modified.
To achieve university college status, institutions must deliver doctoral courses in at least one broad field of study and have “realistic and achievable plans” to qualify for full university status – which entails delivering PhDs in three broad fields – within five years. Critics say this sets the bar too high and rules out applicants that do not aspire to become full-blown universities.
Representative body Independent Higher Education Australia said the university college term was well-known overseas, providing “important status recognition in international education markets”.
Chief executive Simon Finn said the category was also useful for public policy purposes. “If you wanted a teaching-only university to address a changing demographic, a category was available that didn’t need to meet all the research requirements of an Australian university,” he said.
Mr Finn said the main criticism of university colleges was that none had existed until now. “It’s a poorly written and unobtainable category – that’s why there’s no one in it.”
Avondale has twice applied to become a full university. Dr Roennfeldt said the state education department had recommended it be awarded university status more than 20 years ago, but the move had faltered following a change of government.
It reapplied again a decade later and was told to “up the ante in terms of research output. We’ve been focusing on [that] for quite a few years now.”
Dr Roennfeldt said that if the government accepted Professor Coaldrake’s recommendation to abolish the university college category, Avondale was likely to be transitioned to full university status.