12.9 C
Saturday, May 27, 2023
HomeAustraliaTeaching and research are the core functions of universities. But in Australia,...

Teaching and research are the core functions of universities. But in Australia, we don’t value teaching


This article is part of our series on big ideas for the University Agreement. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reinvent higher education, setting it up for the next decade and beyond”. An assessment team must complete a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.

Teaching and research are the two core functions of Australian universities.

But teaching has long been treated as the poor cousin of higher education. It is generally considered to be of low status, receiving little professional recognition and sometimes even seen as the domain of academics who are not successful researchers.

Indeed, the University Agreement reference conditions, released in November 2022, did not explicitly include teaching as a priority theme for assessment. It was only mentioned in passing in connection with accessibility and affordability.

It was included more prominently in the agreement Discussion paper released in February of this year. This noted:

Teaching strength in higher education is a crucial element in making the sector stronger as a whole.

While this ambition reaffirms the core role of teaching, this goal must now be taken seriously. This should be done through national and institutional commitments to support quality education.

The devaluation of teaching in higher education

Teaching is central to creating a high-quality learning environment and producing high caliber graduates.

Still, the education of university students is long overdue devalued in Australian higher education.

Academics are supposed to teach well, but it is believed that being a subject matter expert is enough. Significantly, most undergraduate education is now provided by casual academics, who are often paid exclusively to teach but receive no professional development in return.

Read more: ‘Some treat you like an idiot’: What it’s like to be a casual academic

Despite the fact that the federal government talks about wanting to insure better results for students, business and the community, cuts in national education initiatives also indicate a disregard for education.

In 2016, for example, the coalition government cut funding to the Office for Learning and Teaching, a top body that promotes quality and innovation in university education. Since then there has been no equivalent body to replace it.

Education also takes a backseat to research as an indicator of success. In international rankings, the ‘best’ universities are generally the most research-intensive. Within institutions, say academics too research is highly regarded when applying for a PhD, with relatively little merit for educational achievement.

Academics are supposed to teach well, but it is believed that being a subject matter expert is enough.
Christina Morillo/Pexels

What does ‘quality education’ mean?

A renewed commitment to teaching at the university requires an urgent shift away from narrow notions of what constitutes “quality education” across the industry.

Quality education has many different meanings in higher education, but few get to the heart of supporting academic staff to teach effectively.

The national Quality indicators for learning and teaching focus on three distinct quality areas: the student experience, graduate outcomes, and employer satisfaction. These indicators address different stakeholder concerns and outcomes – which are important in their own right – but do not provide clarity or guidance on what constitutes “good teaching”.

Student evaluations and education awards are marketed by universities as proof of “quality education”. However, evaluations do little more than reveal students’ biases. They reflect a teacher’s perception rather than anything related to their actual teaching. And with awards, only a small number of academics can be recognized as “good teachers”.

These examples show how the management of education has become the dominant focus rather than the practice of teaching.

Read more: Australian unis can’t function without temporary staff: it’s time to treat them like ‘real’ employees

A new way to ensure quality education

The University Agreement could be a sign of genuine commitment to quality education if it re-established a top national body focused on the science of teaching and learning in higher education.

At the institutional level, the agreement must also invest in the professional development of academics, including casual employees. Our research shows that this can be achieved by providing a strong conceptual understanding of what quality education looks like in the university classroom.

In 2019-2020, we have tried the Quality Teaching Model as a mechanism to support the professional development of teaching with 27 academics. The QT Model is a fact-based, practical framework to help academics generate constructive feedback and develop meaningful evidence to transform teaching and learning. This approach was adopted from a model educational academics James Ladwig and Jenny Gore developed for the New South Wales Department of Education for use in schools.

The QT model draws attention to three core dimensions of ‘good’ educational practice. These are:

  1. intellectual quality: developing a deep understanding of important ideas

  2. high-quality learning environment: providing positive classrooms that stimulate student learning

  3. meaning: connecting learning with the lives of students and the rest of the world.

We collaborated with academics from different disciplines and career stages during designated teaching periods. During the interview, the participants reported that the QT model helped them feel that their teaching was valued. They reported that it revitalized many aspects of academic work, including course planning, collaboration within and across disciplines, and enhancing student learning experiences.

Read more: Our research found that new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues

Where to from here?

The main legislation guiding higher education in Australia dictates that academics should not only have relevant disciplinary knowledge, but also skills in contemporary teaching, learning and assessment.

A book marked by colored tabs on a table.
We must prioritize the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

But supporting quality education has always been a struggle.

The agreement is a crucial opportunity to ensure that universities fulfill their core mission of teaching. This is possible and achievable by reinvesting in the scholarship of teaching and learning along with meaningful professional development in teaching for all academic staff.

This requires a strong commitment from the government and the university sector.

Australian academics are already stressed, dealing with huge workloads and part of a workforce that has endured mass layoffs. They also face the challenges of online learning and the uncertainty about what artificial intelligence means for teaching and learning.

University students cannot get quality education without quality education. It’s about time we acknowledge this and do something meaningful about it.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

Latest stories