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Tasmanian Year 11 and 12 students will be seriously jeopardised by Minister Jeremy Rockliff’s plans to abolish the Tasmanian Qualifications Authority (TQA) and then to decide how and what Tasmanian senior secondary students will study. 

The current education standards in Tasmania are well below where they should be. The completion rates for year 12 remain low: less than half our year 10 students go on to finish year 12 while less than half achieve the Tasmanian Certificate of Education (TCE).

Now Minister Rockliff is proposing a policy direction that will lead to lowering standards further. It includes a reduction in spending, fewer teachers, no pathway planners to guide career choices and the abolition of the TQA, which will mean less independent scrutiny of accreditation, assessment and quality assurance.

Tasmania is withdrawing support of education at a time when we should be lifting standards and retention rates.

The new model

In the Rockliff model all decisions regarding courses, standards and qualifications will be made by him with advice from Education Department officers and from a statutory officer yet to be appointed. Minister Rockliff has no background training in education and is not an expert in education qualifications or standards. What he has to offer is a political and ideological perspective on education issues. It is not too fanciful to say that his policy of determining how and what students will study is not too far from the one taken by radical extremists who object to the education of girls, for both seek to politicise school education.

In the Rockliff model the statutory officer will work within the Education Department framework and be paid from its budget. Even if these processes are transparent and involve an advisory committee the lack of external and truly independent oversight represents a conflict of interest. That conflict is apparent in the over-arching role of the Education Department as well as the close relationship between the statutory officer and the Department and/or the political persuasion and views of the Minister. These ‘internal’ processes create a model that lacks credibility and independence. In addition, the cost of a statutory officer will exceed the current cost of the Board so there will be no financial benefits abolishing the TQA Board. 

The TQA model

The credibility of our students’ exam results rests solely on the gold standard that has been established by the TQA. Once that standard is seen to lack credibility in the eyes of Australian universities, Tasmanian qualifications will lose value and our young people will be disadvantaged in their choices beyond year 12. Universities may choose to safeguard their own standards by requiring applicants educated in Tasmania to sit entrance examinations. As a consequence, young Tasmanians will find it harder, if not impossible, to gain entry into their preferred university.

The TQA makes decisions about courses, assessment, certificates, and qualifications and how these are applied to national and state standards. These are decisions in which students, providers and the community have an active interest. The Authority is constituted as sufficiently independent from government so that these decisions can be made, and be seen to be made, without prejudice or inappropriate influence. This will not be the case with the new Rockliff model. 

The TQA operates under separate legislation to the Education Department and is driven by a distinct set of objectives related to its functions as an oversight authority. The TQA also has an independent board made up of three school principals drawn from the state, independent and Catholic sectors, as well as two Professors, several education consultants, a former senior administrator and an officer of the Education Department. 

When making decisions on standards the Board is truly independent of any sector and also from the local interests of teachers. Over the years this independent status has been challenged by some teachers, yet the strength of the TQA’s independence has given legitimacy to Tasmanian senior secondary results so that these results are treated as equal in standard to the senior secondary results of every mainland state. 

Tasmanian teachers have a large stake in the development and delivery of curriculum and express a great deal of passion about courses, their development and accreditation. While teachers are experts in their classrooms, they are not always aware of the different ways courses are delivered throughout the state or nationally. The vital importance of standardizing processes to ensure equity to students is not readily apparent from the perspective of the individual classroom.

National standards

In contrast, the focus of the TQA is always towards a national standard. This generic focus is about delivering equity to all students in the state. While it is understandable that some teachers may feel challenged by these generic necessities their frustration does not justify the destruction of the one independent authority that guarantees credibility to Tasmanian senior secondary results.

The independent structure of the TQA also affords protection to the Minister as well as the Education Department; protection from charges of patronage related to the assessment of individual students and also from challenges of lack of integrity or corruption of students’ results and admission to university. This protective structure is the key to maintaining the trust of the community, a trust that is essential if qualifications are accepted as fair and credible accounts of learning and achievement.

There is a national consensus on the importance of independent authorities to oversee standards, course accreditation, assessment and qualifications. The evidence of this is seen in the history of the ways in which other state and territories have responded. For example, Queensland established an independent statutory board in 1944 while South Australia established its own authority in 1968. In Tasmania the TQA was established in 2004 to replace the Board of Studies. The Northern Territory with its smaller population and limited resources has chosen to out-source this responsibility to South Australia.

Through this arrangement, Northern Territory students can be confident that their educational attainment equates to that of students educated in the rest of Australia. This is a model that must be considered if the decision to abolish the TQA goes ahead. In Tasmania, independent scrutiny of educational standards could be outsourced to Victoria. In this way standards could be maintained although with some risk to the State’s cultural integrity and identity.

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