by LIZ JOHNSON, SALLY KIFT, JASON LODGE and SIOBHAN LENIHAN
To those outside the higher education bubble, many submissions to the Universities Accord Panel must read like unrealistic wish lists at a time when the national budget is under enormous pressure. We (of course) would suggest that our Accord submission is different. With strong cross-sectional support, our big idea is driven by the strategic imperative to improve student learning for all learners; for a revitalised focus on research’s ‘poor cousin’ – the valuing and relentless enhancement of the core university function of teaching.
Learners starting out in higher education are investing time, money and enthusiasm in their future. Australian taxpayers are also investing billions in those learners. How do we ensure they are getting the best opportunities to learn?
Higher education is a complex learning environment. At its best, it combines cutting edge content with a deep understanding of adult learning and effective course design to help diverse learners acquire the knowledge and skills they need for life and work. In 2021, 54 per cent of Australian 25 to 34 year-olds held a tertiary qualification, which exceeds the OECD average of 47 per cent. Most learners reasonably expect their investment to contribute to their future careers and want their institution to connect them with industry partners and the world of work. They expect value for their investment.
Achieving high quality in higher education needs co-ordinated effort. The value of national work has been highlighted in recommendations of the Productivity Commission in its recent report, 5-year Productivity Inquiry: Advancing Prosperity Report. The commission recommends national action across quality assurance, incentivising higher education teaching and developing a national evidence base. In our recent submission to the Accord Panel, we propose establishing a National Centre for Student Success, which can draw together expertise and experience across post-secondary education to raise quality, foster innovation and make lifelong learning a practical reality for all.
A key target for national action will be effective translation to practice. Contemporary learning and teaching delivery and an inclusive student experience draws on expertise in learning and assessment design, learning environments (physical and digital), inclusive practice, embedded 24/7 support, student co-design, work-integrated learning and standards and regulations. The revolutionary power of uniting all dimensions is evident in step-change initiatives that see learners holistically, such as Victoria University’s block model. The national centre we propose would foster innovation in higher education; harnessing the best and latest thinking and practice to ensure that student success is not left to chance.
The national gap in education innovation is widely recognised by sector peak bodies. Within two days of circulating our Accord submission, 22 peak bodies endorsed the need for national action. These peak bodies included student advocacy groups, university groupings, deans’ councils, education professional associations and educational research and resource centres. Endorsements came with a keen desire to collaborate to discuss options and find solutions.
Australia has shown it can successfully draw higher education together around the central goal of improving learning, teaching and the student experience. The Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) (2004-2011) and its successor, the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) (2011-2016), were very successful in galvanising quality improvement. They reached across higher education, driving innovation and new standards, and influenced sector-wide practice. Comprehensive bodies of work emerged on learning outcomes, assessment practice, first year transition, work-integrated learning, diverse student cohorts, capstone curriculum, student mental health and wellbeing, employability, student partnerships, and teaching and leadership capability. Program evaluation has demonstrated considerable evidence of impact and tangible resources from commissioned work.
The post-pandemic world needs new collaborations. Accelerated development of new technologies is changing life, work and study permanently. Multiple reports have called for alignment and co-development of all post-secondary education. National centres in other countries offer useful examples. Ako Aotearoa in New Zealand creates resources and builds capability across vocational and higher education. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in Scotland (QAA Scotland) works with the sector to identify and work on enhancement themes with all institutions contributing.
The rise of generative artificial intelligence (AI) exemplifies of the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration. So far, generative AI has created new tools for professional work spanning writing, analysis, multi-media and collaborative work. It is changing the nature of work. It will push education to focus on human skills and building capability to work purposefully with technology. Two factors make this a particularly wicked challenge – the scale of the effect and the pace of change.
While generative AI has been developed over years, it took off with the release of ChatGPT which allowed mass access at no or low cost. While generative AI tools are proliferating rapidly and are being overtly embedded in everyday digital platforms, educators are struggling to respond in a timely manner. Initial concerns about cheating are giving ground to the much larger challenges of changing assessment and feedback, design for learning, work-based learning, regulation, accreditation and particularly upskilling educators. We need collective advice harmonised across education researchers and designers, industry partners, libraries and copyright regulators, ethicists, and critically, from students themselves. Educators need co-ordinated and authoritative guidance that can show a path forward and allow for quick, but considered, responses in today’s classrooms with an eye for the future.
Peer-to-peer learning is a powerful tool for innovation and quality enhancement. Communities of practice have sprung up to share ideas about generative AI but the volume of information, articles and advice is bewildering. Authoritative voices that help practitioners sort the hype from reality and plan their next steps are sorely needed.
Our proposed national centre for student success does not seek to replace or control existing expertise. It will create a recognised and respected place to work collaboratively, find consensus and define better standards of practice. It will lift outcomes and benefit all learners who are making that profound investment in their future.
Professor Liz Johnson, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic, Deakin University
Professor Sally Kift, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, Victoria University; Adjunct Professor JCU, QUT, La Trobe University
Associate Professor Jason Lodge, Associate Dean (Academic), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of Queensland
Ms Siobhan Lenihan, Adviser to the DVC Academic, Deakin University