by MERLIN CROSSLEY
The first edition of Campus Morning Mail appeared on August 5 2013.
How much has changed? For better, for worse, and what has stayed the same? What has driven or prevented changes?
By 2013 the Demand Driven System was taking off. More Australian students were accessing university than ever. This had many consequences.
Making university education available to all who aspire to it undoubtedly enhanced human capital and social cohesion. It will have changed many lives. Graduates enjoy better opportunities to secure careers that fit with their skills and passions.
The DDS benefited many science and arts faculties where student numbers rose a lot. The smaller intakes in medicine remained capped, and premium degrees in engineering, actuarial studies, or top law schools didn’t expand as much. More recently demand plateaued and then government funding for load was capped. But the impact of the DDS will endure.
Having more students provided jobs, including for education focused academics, and revenues to invest in projects. It also increased the influence of universities, as the number of prospective students and alumni increased.
On the downside, there was an ongoing concern about low ATARs, especially in teaching, and this debate continues today. There was also the question of how to pay for the larger sector. The coalition considered deregulating fees (when Chris Pyne was minister), but ultimately ended up tinkering with the fee structures, especially with Job Ready Graduates under Dan Tehan.
The ability to shift Commonwealth supported places between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees was eventually introduced and gradually one can see leading institutions expanding in the postgraduate space.
The first Student Experience Survey under the Quality Indicators in Learning and Teaching (QILT) banner ran in 2012, and the Graduate Outcome Surveys from 2016.
There are still opportunities to improve these – for instance by introducing a fixed date for sector-wide reporting – but overall the QILT data has pushed universities to focus on the student experience. The survey data, like the research league tables and assessment exercises, are not perfect, but they provide a student voice and help drive improvements.
The staff experience is also important and CMM did a good job of capturing their concerns and reporting on the issues that the unions prioritised on behalf of their members.
In 2015 the first formal Athena Swan work began in Australia. Athena Swan began as the Scientific Women’s Academic Network in the UK in 2005, but expanded beyond science and across the globe. There is obviously more work to be done, but this initiative ushered in an age where data was collected, and better strategies to address inequities were implemented. Most universities now have equity, diversity, and inclusion offices and having a data-based approach is important.
In terms of research, the governments of Turnbull, Abbott, and Morrison did not invest in the same way as either Rudd or Gillard, or indeed the Howard government had, but there was at least one notable win in the last ten years – the Medical Research Future Fund.
Although the initial idea of funding this via a tariff on visits to one’s GP didn’t work, the commitment to investing in the fund endured. At first there was general bewilderment about the appropriateness of the mechanisms by which the money was allocated to research areas, but if the MRFF ends up under the NHMRC, it has the potential to make a huge difference to medical research and the development of treatments.
The MRFF has fared better than the Coalition’s Higher Education Endowment Fund, which became Labor’s Education Infrastructure Fund. This fund was designed to support capital works by universities, so that they wouldn’t need to recruit ever increasing numbers of international students to cover rising infrastructure and technology costs.
Much of the fund was well spent out, and then the remaining dollars were eventually transferred to support Natural Disaster relief, and sadly it was closed. Not surprisingly universities continue to have little option but to look to international students to meet their costs. The O’Kane Accord is carefully considering this issue.
And what hasn’t changed?
MOOCs have not sidelined universities. Degrees remain important.
The lecture has not died. Nor have exams.
In terms of regulation no government has succeeded in “taking the foot of government off the throat of universities.” But we should celebrate the fact that, having done its job well, the Excellence in Research for Australia assessment exercise has been sensibly rethought, and after the Lee Dow/Braithwaite review that featured in the first edition of CMM, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency has become more streamlined, has engaged positively with the sector, and is generally valued.
So, what has been the main driving force operating in the background in the last ten years?
Global information flows. Awareness of opportunities, innovation and competition has driven many initiatives, but also imposed some uniformity. Social media has exploded and enabled connections for many, but for others it has sown angst and disappointment as people feel they are missing out, or are not performing to expectations. In some places populism and misinformation has proliferated, and set back efforts to implement important solutions to grand challenges that rely on collective action.
In a broader context information continues to drive impacts with the use of Artificial Intelligence currently exploding across the world, and in my research area the ability to write the information code of living organisms via CRISPR gene editing is the most profound advance I have witnessed.
Throughout all of this CMM has provided daily, local and relevant international information about tertiary education. It has steadfastly endeavoured to maintain the tradition of quality and independent journalism. My mornings won’t be quite the same without it,
Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW Sydney