Support for OLT vital for Australia in the Education Century

Support for OLT vital for Australia in the Education Century

By the President and Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, Professor Margaret Gardner AO
Delivered at the Office for Learning and Teaching Conference 2016
Melbourne, 28 April 2016

Last week I was part of a panel that may never meet again.

We were interviewing the shortlisted National Senior Teaching Fellows for 2016.

OLT Fellows are selected for their record of excellence in higher education. The reviewers who assessed this year’s applications had already attested to the quality of these teachers.

Their history of innovation, the scale of their influence and, most importantly, the potential impact of their programs was clear.

The panel interviews, however, always reveal something more.

No matter the diversity of their projects or their differences in approach, each candidate always shows a deep and abiding passion and commitment to improving education.

“Educating the Edisons”, proposed to embed more independent and creative problem solving into the engineering curriculum.

Other interviews outlined proposals to:

  • engage students more firmly in the decisions that shape their education;
  • to reframe how our curriculum will prepare for employability for a different age; and
  • to bring the ability to work at the research cutting edge into undergraduate education.

Each of these are proposals for immediate action at more than one university, sharing innovation with many academics and students.

Not every proposal that receives approval works in the way it’s expected to, but each is grounded in collaboration.

And each aims to bring distinct, measurable benefit to a priority area of learning.

The way OLT grants have been distributed over the past four years says much about where those priorities lie.

OLT grants by priority area 2012-15

  • Graduate employability: 22%
  • Pedagogy in higher education: 20%
  • Digital technologies and 21st Century learning: 13%
  • Assessment: 12%
  • Student experience: 10%

Programs like the National Teaching Fellowships recognise the world of higher education and its role in society has changed profoundly.

The review-driven and collaborative nature of these programs is far removed from the idea of the solitary, brilliant teacher inspiring the next generation in their classroom.

One third of Australian jobs will require a university degree in coming years.

We cannot provide brilliant, relevant education to the over 1.2 million students now enrolled at Australian universities by pretending we teach in small nineteenth century universities.

The OLT Fellowship program exists to make systemic and institutional change. It seeks to build national capabilities.

And our success in doing so is increasingly being viewed as a model for universities overseas.

Last year Dennis Murray, a member of an international team investigating excellence in higher education on behalf of the British Higher Education Academy, observed that:

[The OLT has] produc[ed] and disseminat[ed] a vast body of knowledge and good practice throughout the higher education sector. This has led to demonstrable improvements in our higher education institutions, including in teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The achievements increasingly are seen as exemplars in other countries.

Recognition of this kind is a remarkable achievement

It is an achievement has been made in little more than a decade, on a tiny budget.

Yet last year the funding to OLT was cut even further, and this year there is an ominous silence. Media commentary assumes that the OLT will be a ‘budget saving’.

The federal funding to the OLT in 2015 was already small. It would amount to some $6 per student per annum in 2017 and 2018.

It is easy to see how this apparently derisory amount might indicate a program not worth continuing.

All budgets are political – not in the crude sense of rewarding supporters or powerful lobbies, but because they signal what the government (as our representative) values.

A government-supported award to an individual sends a powerful message about contribution to a shared goal.

When a nation recognises a certain person as the best university teacher each year, it says much about the talent and the dedication of that person. But it also says a great deal about the importance of excellent university teaching to the nation.

A key reason the OLT has been so effective is that the application process is so demanding.

Evidence of impact is an explicit requirement of all OLT funding applications. The program must show what change will happen and how.

Added to this, OLT grants, fellowships and awards are heavily contested. Applications are subject to peer review as rigorous as that for ARC or NHMRC funding.

Less than 20% of applicants for such grants proposing important innovations are successful.

The high quality is supported by the affirmation of commitment by government and institutions.

University education leads to the creation of new industries, new jobs and opportunities.

Without a commitment to innovation in university education, how do we expect to nurture future innovators? What mechanisms will be available to support collaboration and change across the sector?

Without the OLT there is no national affirmation of the importance of innovation and change in university education.

Each university invests to support excellent teaching, innovations, and improved education performance and change. The level of their investment varies with capacity.

The OLT provides a national space for discussion of these goals.

And each time an applicant submitted a grant or a fellowship there was specific endorsement from university leadership to provide institutional support.

The involvement of so many universities in the OLT is another reason why the program has been so effective.

OLT grants and fellowship funding 2012-15

OLT awards and citations funding 2012-15

The OLT has made each of these universities a partner in better teaching and learning.

OLT funding is distributed much more broadly across universities than research grant funding, where the Group of Eight receives around 70% of competitive funding between them.

If there is no scheme to leverage institutional investment in a nationally competitive set of programs, constrained resources of universities may be diverted to other ends.

The withdrawal of a small national investment will impoverish our symbolic (and practical) commitment to high quality university education.

University education contributes $140 billion to our economy annually.

International education is our largest export earner after resources and our third largest export industry.

Many academics will continue to give their all for better teaching and better student outcomes, irrespective of the environment around them. No academic wants to teach a bad class.

But promoting teaching and the risks of innovation and change against the other demands of academic work is challenging.

Few academics will receive a job offer from a desirable university on the basis of their teaching.

Universities in the US, UK, Europe and Asia hire academics largely on the basis of research outcomes.

Against these international pressures we must ensure high focus on innovation and performance in university education.

In Australia, at least, academics have been hired and promoted because of the profile and the opportunity for innovation highlighted by OLT recognition.

There are now a number of senior executive in Australian universities who built their reputation changing education as National Teaching Fellows.

Almost every university now supports a program to reduce attrition through the first year experience - one of the first Teaching Fellow programs.

Let us hope that on budget night, the predictions prove wrong and the federal government continues to support an initiative that has changed names but not mission over more than 15 years of successive Coalition and Labor Ministers.

The Office of Learning and Teaching is a small but vital statement of our national priorities.

For that reason, I thank each of you for being here tonight.

Your presence is a reaffirmation of the importance we place on innovation and excellence in university education.

Thank you.