2018 was another year where independent higher education providers (iHEPs) fought hard to consolidate their important place in the Australian higher education sector.

Here are my key observations from the past 12 months.

Independent HEPs remain the “poor relation” of higher education. 2018 reinforced that we are a long way from iHEPs being compared equally to universities in terms of student choice and quality outcomes.

Whenever publicly available data show that independent providers are perceived by students as equal to, or even better than their university cousins this is often explained away as an aberration rather than a legitimate outcome. I’ve even heard said: “well your students would say nice things about you because they pay for their courses”. I’m still trying to fathom the logic of that statement.

Inequity between different categories of higher education is starkly evident when it comes to government support for undergraduate students, with no CSP places and a 25% administration fee on HELP loans at iHEPs. What a disincentive for anyone to study at an independent provider. Yet they still do, in increasing numbers.

There were three new HEPs approved this year and all of them had to appeal to the AAT, so not one application stood on its merits according to TEQSA. Two HEPs have “handed back their licences” during the year, so the overall number of higher education providers has barely moved. In fact, the total number of registered higher education providers is essentially the same since TEQSA was established, as was highlighted by TEQSA’s CEO at the TEQSA conference in November.

Professor Peter Coaldrake’s review of the higher education provider category standards caused me to look back at whether there had been any approvals in any category other than Category 1 – Higher Education Provider under TEQSA’s watch, and the surprising (or maybe not so surprising) answer is “no”. I don’t want to read too much into this, but not one new higher education provider in any of the five other higher education provider categories for the past six years does not seem indicative of a vibrant HE sector.

The peak bodies that support iHEPs, COPHE and ACPET have continued to advocate for their members both publicly and behind the scenes. Although we may not have seen many breakthroughs in 2018, let’s hope our advocacy is being heard and taken on board when formulating government policy.

What do I hope for in 2019?

With additional funding here’s hoping that TEQSA is properly resourced and processing times for applications are reduced. iHEPs are still waiting far too long for decisions to be made, and often forced to challenge TEQSA’s decisions in the AAT for a fair outcome.

Let’s also wish for an end to the 25% administration fee on undergraduate students who choose to study at an iHEP. The argument as to why an iHEP’s undergraduate students must pay this discriminatory fee is spurious at best. Compare the postgraduate sector where there is no administration fee for students at any provider. Here is a shining example of competitive neutrality – a level playing field for students choosing a university vs. an iHEP. A non-discriminatory funding regime working as intended, without distorting the market, and with no obvious examples of any “bad behaviour”.

Let’s hope the higher education provider category standards review actually comes up with something new, that is truly accessible to all quality providers. I’m suggesting a new category of “Australian Applied University” for independent providers that excel in teaching, particularly those that specialise in one broad discipline.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have supported the Higher Education Leadership Institute (HELI) during our first year of operations as an iHEP. It has been an incredible journey over the past year and here’s looking forward to a bright 2019 for all iHEPs.