Friday, December 20, 2013

Is Torrens University Australia's First On-line Unviersity?

Professor Jim Barber, UNE Vice-Chancellor is  reported to have been advocating changes to government regulations to allow on-line universities to be established in Australia. Professor Barber announced that The University of New England will not charge on-line students a Student Services and Amenities Fee from 2014, but feels the regulations limit more changes. However, Torrens University Australia, as Australia's second private university seems to be primarly an on-line institution. An analysis of how it was able to meet the Australian university regulatory requirements could be useful for existing institutions which want to transition to on-line mode, as well as potential new universities.

Torrens University Australia was admitted to the Australian National Register of higher education providers in July 2012, as an "Australian University" and authorised to self-accredit courses.

Torrens was recognised by the South Australian parliament in the "TORRENS UNIVERSITY AUSTRALIA ACT 2013", with a campus in South Australia. The act is very short as most of the oversight of universities in Australia is now done by the Commonwealth Government. While Torrens has a campus in SA, there appear to be no requirement for the university to actually undertake administration, teaching or research at that campus, or anywhere else in Australia.

As described in their Study Assist entry, Torrens is part of Laureate International Universities, which provides "international" education online to 800,000 students. There appears to be no requirement under SA or Australian law for Torrens to employ a set number of administrative, teaching or research staff in Australia, or to conduct any of the administration, teaching or research in Australia. The SA Minister for Education's media release mentions Torres has "... plans for significant investment in higher education in Australia", but no funding amount or staffing figure is mentioned. However Torrens did advertise for a full time Associate Professor in September 2013, as well as a Lecturer in Education Project Management and a Learning Resources Coordinator., and a Student Administration Manager. A search of Torrens Staff on LinkedIn resulted in only eight: Vice-Chancellor, Assistant Professor - Business (Project Management), Academic Director, Lecturer - Business, Enrolment Advisor, Student Administration Manager and a Coordinator of IT Services. In comparison, LinkedIn lists 3,416 current staff for the University of Adelaide, which has 25,000 students. Torrens may need to employ only one hundredth the number of staff in Australia as a conventional university, for the same number of students.

As noted in the Explanatory Statement, the Minister for Education decided not to conduct any consultation before approving Torrens, as they did not think it restrict competition. This could be a useful precedent to cite for others wishing to set up on-line universities.

Torrens appears to have had some difficulty meeting the requirement that all Australian universities deliver both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in at least three fields, including Masters and Doctoral Degrees by Research and also do research in those fields. Torrens gave an undertaking to commence on undergraduate degree (in Commerce) and postgraduate research degrees in Management and Commerce, Health and Education, by January 2014 and undergraduate degrees in the other fields by 2015. There appears to be no separate undertaking to do research in those fields, but perhaps the Tertiary Education Quality and
Standards Agency (TEQSA) thought the research undertaken by the Masters and PHD students would be sufficient.

It may seem surprising that TEQSA would accredit a university which does not currently meet the standards. However it seems reasonable that a new institution should be given some time to work up its teaching and research programs.

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