Australia’s university with no courses or students

In October 2011, the for-profit Laureate International Universities group announced that it was opening a new university, Torrens University Australia, in Adelaide. Back then, I commented that it was just in time – that it was using provisions for new universities that were to be abolished under the new standards system enforced by TEQSA.

My comment about it being just in time for a while seemed premature, as when the TEQSA register of higher education providers was created in early 2012 Torrens was not there. The problem seems to have been that though there were transitional rules putting all existing higher providers on the register automatically, the definition of ‘higher education provider’ in the TEQSA legislation referred to an organisation offering or conferring a higher education award. As Torrens did neither, it was not automatically transitioned to the register.

That created significant problems, as the rules on creating new universities make it very difficult for this to ever occur. To become an Australian university, it is necessary to offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including PhDs, in at least three broad fields of study (a specialist university can have one field – MCD University of Divinity is the only example). It is also necessary undertake research leading to ‘the creation of new knowledge or original creative endeavour’ in those three fields.

A version of these rules has been in place since 2000, and unsurprisingly no new Australian university has commenced operation since. Our existing private universities would not have met them in their earlier years, and Notre Dame is still only just likely to qualify (three fields of study get a rating in the Excellence in Research for Australia exercise). With restricted public research funding eligibility, few organisations can fund the loss-making research needed to qualify as a university.

It seems like a regulatory workaround was created in June, though I (and it seems most other people) missed it at the time. A new regulation was created retrospectively allowing higher education providers registered but not operating to be included in the transitional arrangements. So Torrens University now appears on the TEQSA National Register (and also has a website promising a 2014 start). It is Australia’s 40th full university, albeit one with no students or courses.

Torrens University is registered until the end of 2017, so it has five years to meet the three field of study course and research requirements. While drawing on foreign resources is the most plausible way a new university could be created, I’m not sure why a for-profit like Laureate would devote large sums of money to activities that are unlikely to deliver financial returns. If Torrens does not meet the threshold three fields, there will be a messy situation in which the regulator tries to strip an institution, its students and its graduates of the ‘university’ title. Perhaps they are hoping that between now and then the government will take a more flexible view of what constitutes a ‘university’.