by MERLIN CROSSLEY
My New Year’s resolution was to keep asking the question – what’s best for our students – and to bear it in mind as I come to big decisions during the year.
Like most New Year’s resolutions, it’s something I already do but not nearly enough.
Universities have so many stakeholders – our students, their families, our staff, and many important sectors of society, represented by local councils, State and federal politicians, leaders of industry, research funders, community organisations, philanthropists, and we are also mindful of our responsibilities to alumni, colleagues across the sector, and interested citizens. Many of these groups can be broken down further – domestic and international students, undergraduates, postgrads, and research students, academic and professional staff, scientists, social scientists, and those studying art and humanities etc.
It’s no wonder that most university decisions don’t please all of the people, all of the time. As the world becomes more complex due to growth in sophistication and in specialisation, and more transparent, due to social media, I don’t think the answer is to respond too quickly to each immediate displeasure.
Instead, it is worth focussing on the core purpose of universities. That is, to create and pass on knowledge. To do research and to teach. To invent new skills and newly skilled graduates. But to do both with that central question always in our minds – what is best for our students?
So, what is best and how will we know what’s best?
A few years ago, my university listed some key things and called it the Scientia Education Model – Communities, Dialogue, Inspiring teachers, all supported by Digital resources.
We took steps to drive improvements.
To create dialogue, we increased the use of student surveys, and to encourage the bottom-up formation of communities, the first question on the surveys became “did you feel part of a learning community?”
We have also increased the support for our most inspiring teachers and sought to grow their number. We established the Scientia Education Academy and formed a thriving community of education focussed staff. This group collaborates on teaching strategy and practice across the institution and keeps sharing new ideas.
Increasing the data and visibility of teaching, including supportive peer review of teaching, has enabled many education focussed staff to be promoted. Now we have a good cohort of professors in this group, who are increasingly influential. Finally, we’ve invested millions in digital resources and the students appreciate, or actually even just expect, that nowadays.
This year we will focus even more on the student experience and one of my colleagues came up with a new three word slogan – one cannot deny the power of word trinities – “Listening, Challenging, Supporting”.
Cynical as I am when it comes to slogans, I liked this a lot.
I want us to prioritise Listening, especially listening to students. We’ll listen in many ways, but student experience surveys will remain important. I recognise that there can be survey fatigue, that they need to be interpreted with caution, and that focussing too much on the raw numbers, rather than the ideas, is problematic, but I believe we need to be serious about the student voice. We call them MyExperience surveys rather than Teaching Evaluations to keep things in perspective. They are about the experience of students, not the efficacy of teaching – though the two are often intertwined. We’ll also keep listening to staff too, through the education forums, lectures, conferences and informal feedback (you know where to find me).
I also liked the second word – Challenging. Obviously challenging people too much won’t necessarily lead to higher reported student satisfaction, but we are here to challenge. The modern world is – like it or not – a battleground of competition. We’re lucky. We live in a prosperous and stable country. We have great diversity and are open to new ideas. We should be challenging ourselves and each other to reach for the stars, and we should not be shy about academic excellence. My institution has about 60,000 students. We are not an elite, finishing school, for the rich. We should be proud of the fact that we take very well-prepared students who have a median entry score of more than 90, as well as having pathways for talents students from less advantaged backgrounds. One of the things that defines us and enables cohort, student to student learning, is our academic rigour, and we have to keep pushing these very capable students so they can succeed anywhere on earth.
The last word is Supporting. We aim to support our students to achieve their best, but the word supporting is also there in case, we or the world, pushes too hard. The issue of youth mental health continues to occupy us. Are we pushing too hard, is the internet part of the problem, is it globalisation and the weight of expectations, as supposed meritocracies promise that dreams can come true, if only you work hard enough? Is it the opposite? Have we inadvertently taught fragility rather than resilience via coddling? We’ll probably never know but one of the best ways to form a strong community is by being supportive, so we’ll strive to deliver on that.
Ultimately, there’s a balance and there’ll be trade-offs related to every decision we make but emphasising the focus on students seems the right move. We’ll keep working on both teaching and research, and that research will also inform our teaching and inspire students, and with everyone’s help we’ll see if we succeed in discovering – what’s best for our students?
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life