Learning standards and policy controversies in Australian higher education

Year: 2012

Author: Yorke, Jonathan, Vidovich, Lesley

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



This paper reports research from a larger project which aims to analyse contemporary and emerging assessment policies and practices in Australian higher education resulting from the Australian Government policy Transforming Australia's Higher Education System, released in 2009. Contemporary Government policy points to the growing need for "meaningful academic standards" cast as broad descriptors of what a graduate should be able to do as a result of their studies; an approach designed to further accountability and to ensure comparability of qualifications across the higher education sector. The policy emphasis is moving from institutional quality processes to learning outcomes and their assurance, in a context of enhanced regulation by the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. This landmark change is highly significant.


This research employs a 'policy trajectory' analytical framework; a comprehensive approach which analyses influences and characteristics of policy texts, as well as examining subsequent effects on practices and potential longer term outcomes. It is an approach consistent with contemporary policy analysis in a context of accelerating globalisation. The span of analysis in the larger research project from which this paper is drawn extends between 'macro' (global), 'meso' (national) and 'micro' (institutional) levels, with data obtained from both documents and interviews at each level. In order to achieve the comprehensive analysis intended, the dual theoretical paradigms of critical theory and post-structuralist theory are employed, with critical discourse analysis of document and interview texts. This paper reports findings drawn from an analysis of selected national policy documents and interviews with key national policy actors.


Documentary analysis of the Transforming Australia's Higher Education System policy and two key consultation papers, together with their responses, reveals a number of challenges relating to academic standards and their comparison. Strong and sustained contestation is observable in responses to the policy and consultation papers, prompting both policy settlements and reversals en route. A number of underpinning assumptions regarding assessment standards are identified and discussed in the light of their contested status. Longer term risks are outlined, including the narrowing of curricula and the cumulative effects of successive policy changes in the sector.


Contemporary Australian assessment policy in higher education has a strong focus on academic standards and the assurance of learning outcomes at the level of the graduate. This research suggests that there are a number of implications for assessment policies and practices as new policy settlements continue to evolve.