The world is complex and the process of acquiring and updating ideas about it and the people and phenomena within it is often difficult and challenging. Research has demonstrated repeatedly that, for these kinds of difficulties, challenges and errors are critical to effective learning that sticks over the longer term. Yet, as robust and longstanding as this research is, there is no sign of there being much consideration of the learning process in policy discussions about higher education in Australia.

Student retention, post-hoc program/subject satisfaction, employer satisfaction, employment rates and even assessment tasks all focus on an outcome and are often decoupled from the process students go through to arrive there. The most important and lasting learning experiences are those that are not immediately satisfying and do not directly lead to a job.

Of course, that is not to say that university life should be a miserable one for students. Students should enjoy the university experience and be given all the support they need to be successful. However, if you were to build a gym solely on the basis of what makes people satisfied, you would end up with a coffee shop full of people wearing lycra. Quality learning, like getting fit, is hard work.

Quality higher education is about students developing the capacities that allow them to function as professionals, scientists and scholars. Increasingly that means coping with complexity, uncertainty, and failure. The focus of quality higher education needs to be on developing coping mechanisms and strategies for dealing with the complex social, technical, economic and environmental problems we face in the 21st century. Whether students are satisfied and get a job is important but, like many things, it is about the journey, not the outcome. Our policies, practices and (if necessary) performance funding need to align with that.

Associate Professor Jason M. Lodge, PhD

School of Education & Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation

The University of Queensland

[email protected]


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education