Australia's declining investment in quality university teaching

Written by the President and Vice-Chancellor at Monash, Professor Margaret Gardner, AO


Teaching is at the core of what Australian universities do, yet it receives nowhere near the attention it should, and is in danger of receiving even less.

In part this neglect can be traced back to university ranking systems that focus predominantly on research. In part it's a product of increasingly inadequate funding.

In Australia quality teaching is served by a program called Promotion of Excellence in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (PELTHE), administered through the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT).

Funding for learning and teaching has suffered cuts in most federal budgets over the last seven to eight years. In the 2015 federal budget the Office for Learning and Teaching had its funding cut by over 36%, or A$16.1m, for the period 2016 to 2019.

This cut is likely to severely constrain our ability to answer challenging questions commonly faced by university lecturers. For example: how do we help students with different levels of preparation to learn chemistry in large first year classes? How do we teach students to understand what they don't know, and help them improve?

Responses to these questions were developed through the Office for Learning and Teaching and made available for all higher education institutions in 2015. It's uncertain how much of this work will continue.

A culture of excellence in education

A comparatively small investment by the federal government in grants, fellowships and awards through the Office for Learning and Teaching and its predecessor bodies, has led to national innovations in the quality of learning and teaching across higher education.

There is now a significant alumni of national teaching award winners and national teaching fellows. This has benefited students, universities and communities immensely, but unfortunately there are few ways of seeing this success because there are no international rankings devoted to learning and teaching.

Instead, we measure the success of Australian universities increasingly through international rankings that, while important, largely reflect research excellence.

Student retention and success in Australia compares well with similar countries. A recent article in The Australian argued the review of learning and teaching for the British Higher Education Academy suggests that the Australian OLT and predecessors has

produc[ed] and disseminat[ed] a vast body of knowledge and good practice throughout the higher education sector […] with achievements increasingly […] seen as exemplars for other countries.

How excellence is promoted

The competitive peer-review system for learning and teaching excellence is as rigorous as that which distributes competitive research funding.

Each year between 750 and 900 applications are received from across the higher education system for grants, fellowships and awards.

Around one quarter were successful in 2014 - although success rates vary from a low of 12% for grants (similar to the success rates for research grants from the Australian Research Council) to 46% for awards which are given to the best teachers in a field of study and tend to attract a small number of applications from any particular institution.

Funding received by institutions for teaching and learning innovation and excellence is spread across a broad range of institutions. By my calculations the top 10 universities received 46% of total funds awarded.

This is a much lower concentration than seen in research grant funding distributions, where the top eight universities receive around 70% of competitive funding between them.

Evaluating impact

The evaluation processes say much about how impact is valued. Grants are evaluated on the creativity and innovation of their plans.

How will this add to what we understand about and how we undertake effective learning and teaching? What does this mean for the quality of learning and teaching in a specific discipline? How will it address an issue such as academic integrity, building particular graduate capabilities, or increasing retention of students?

Teaching awards go to the best teachers nationally in particular disciplines, such as science or law or nursing, and to the best teaching teams, whether they are delivering improvements to the first year experience or improving learning outcomes from laboratory work.

The applications require evidence of student evaluations over time, how teaching and learning has improved over a number of years, and of how the innovations and excellence in teaching have influenced others beyond their own classroom or institution.

Fellowships are about how a particular academic will lead a program to have a direct impact on improving the quality of learning and teaching in their institution or across institutions.

To win such a fellowship the program must show what change will happen and how. A key part of these learning and teaching fellowships is ensuring that innovations in learning and teaching are disseminated across many institutions, courses and classes. They must have an impact.

It is time we talked more about what excellent teaching in higher education means for students. Dedicated national investment in learning and teaching in higher education will be just A$28m over the next four years – this is much less federal funding available than at any time over the previous decade.

Quality and innovation in learning and teaching should grow along with increased student numbers and advances in technology. Instead it is diminishing.

Promotion of Excellence in Teaching and Learning Funding by institutionAuthor Provided, Author provided

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.