The decline and demise of the Commonwealth’s strategic investment in quality learning and teaching

When the Gillard Labor Government announced, in response to the 2012 Queensland floods, that the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) was to be abolished to save $88m over the forward estimates, many in the sector rallied against the withdrawal of, what was even then, a small investment in necessary R&D for Australian higher education to innovate (0.1 per cent of gross revenues).

Fortunately in 2012, Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie was persuaded by colleagues at UTAS to intervene. A deal that he brokered saw $54m saved out of the ALTC’s execution and the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) was born.

Now the Abbott/ Turnbull government has decreed that the OLT shall close its doors from 30 June 2016 and that even the meagre $28m that was promised to establish a new National Institute, as recommended by its own commissioned expert report (the Milbourne Report), is not worth investing.

$88m to $54m to $28m to $0. That is what strategic investment in educational innovation for a world class education system, that is incidentally Australia’s largest service export, is worth to our federal government.

At a time when the government is investing $1.1billion in its National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), as Gavin Moodie has observed, this move “reinforces the view that while teaching and learning is universities’ most important role, in national policy, it is very much a second priority to research.”

The sector has again rallied in 2016. But this time, it is not just the usual suspects.

Embarrassingly for the government, its core NISA constituency – the Deans of Science, the Deans of IT, the Deans of Engineering, two Nobel Laureates and the Chief Scientist who spoke at the recent OLT Conference in April 2016 – has also called on the government to continue its critical, system-wide investment in the quality of student learning and higher education innovation. They make a simple point: the massive cultural change that is implied by NISA needs to be matched by assured and continual change and innovation in L&T.

Unlike research grant funding, where the top eight universities receive around 70% of competitive funding, Professor Margaret Gardner points to the extraordinarily broad range of institutions that have received L&T innovation and excellence funding (2006-2014) and OLT grants and fellowships funding (2012-2015). Unlike research grant funding, every single ALTC/OLT grant and fellowship is evaluated for efficacy and is publically available for creative commons re-use.

This is funding that goes to the heart of the wicked problems that vex our sector’s international pursuit of educational quality and maintenance of national standards: for example

  • Students’ development of English language proficiency;
  • Academic integrity;
  • Use of big data and analytics to improve learning;
  • Student learning,  success and retention of and for diverse cohorts;
  • Improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HE outcomes;
  •  Enhancing graduate employability and the quality of work integrated learning.

#OLTphoenix and the diverse contributions collected below condemn the government’s “complete abdication of federal involvement in providing the ‘carrot’ for improving learning and teaching in universities…[which is] set in sharp relief to the rhetoric of successive Governments that rant about the importance and centrality of graduate outcomes and quality” (Professor Carol Nicoll). And in sharp relief to research incentivisation.

Take the foot off the pedal in this globally competitive sector and Australia will fall behind all too quickly. Our bygone reputation for educational excellence will count for little in the face of aggressive investment internationally and constant sector and technological disruption.

This is no passing fancy. A national innovation and ideas strategy is unsustainable without parallel investment in innovative education. We will continue to call on successive governments to invest in Australia’s students, its future graduate workforce and the associated economic productivity uplift.

Let’s call it an independent National Academy for Graduate Success. Who wouldn’t want one of those?

Sally Kift

President, Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows

22 May 2016

Kift, S. (2016). The decline and demise of the Commonwealth’s strategic investment in quality learning and teaching. Student Success, 7(2), 1-9. doi: 10.5204/ssj.v7i2.336





Universities Australia statement – Abolition of Office for Learning and Teaching a loss

NTEU statement – NTEU statement in support of saving the Office for Learning and Teaching

RUN statement in support – Government support needed for regional and low SES university students

The Online Petition to Minister The Honourable Simon Birmingham “Save the OLT or act on Prof. Milbourne’s Report!”

Prof Sandy O’Sullivan, the first Indigenous ALTF Fellow from Batchelor Institute statement

Margaret Gardner – The Conversation – Australia’s declining investment in quality university teaching, 23 June 2015

Jenna Price – Another promise broken – Office of Learning and Teaching to lose funding

Twitter #OLTPhoenix  and  #oltconf2016

Karen Nelson – Linkedin  – We need an independent publicly-funded national higher education learning and teaching body

The AustralianDemise of ALTC a blow for innovation, 02 February 2016

Gavin Moodle – The ConversationHigher education in policy paralysis after Budget 2016 – what now?, May 4 2016

Dawn Bennett and Tim Pitman – The Conversation , Explainer: what is the Office for Learning and Teaching – and why does it matter?, 23 May 2016

Stefanie Garbe – Lawyers WeeklyBudget cuts threaten education innovation, 16 May 2016

Margaret Gardner – The Conversation , Innovation in learning and teaching is too important to cut, 16 May 2016

Carol Nicoll – The Australian – Canberra hasn’t learnt its lesson, 27 April 2016 (pg 32)

Julie Hare – The Australian – Teaching fellows urge Simon Birmingham to reconsider budget cuts

Julie Hare – The Australian – Clouds Gathering over Office of Learning and Teaching, 13 April 2016 (pg 31)

Belinda Robinson – The Australian – More funding a tie breaker, 22 April 2016 (pg 12)

Shirley Alexander– The Australian – Knowledge key to graduate outcomes, 16 March 2016 (pg 30)

Andrys Onsman – Inside Higher Ed – A National Celebration of Teaching Quality – Briefly, 27 June 2016

Sally Kift – The Australian Sector-wide backing kept us world-Class, 15 February 2017


A New National Institute for Learning and Teaching: A report to the Department of Education and Training, Emeritus Professor Ross Milbourne, 17 August 2015



Letter of support from Dr Allan Goody – President, Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), 22 April 2016

Letter of support from Professor Sally Kift – President, Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows (ALTF), 19 April 2016

Letter of support from Professor Iwona Milisszewska – President, Australia Council of Deans of ICT (ACDICT), 20 April 2016

Letter of support from Professor John Rice – Executive Director, Australia Council of Deans of Science (ACDS), 19 April 2016

Letter of support from Associate Professor Dominique Parrish – President, Australasian society for Computers in Learning In Tertiary Education (ASCILITE), 26 April 2016. Response letter from Di Weddell.

Letter of support from Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe – President, Council of Australian Directors of Academic Development (CADAD), 26 April 2016

Letter of support from Professor Moses Tade 0 President, Australian Council of Engineering Deans (ACED), 26 April 2016

Letter from Di Weddell, Student and Information Learning, Department of Education and Training, 12 May 2016

Letter of support to PENs, Joy Whitton, VTAS Network

Email of support from Mustika Indah (Nina) Khairina – National President, Council of International Students Australia (CISA)



Speech and Presentation of the Australian Awards for University Teaching at The Australian Learning and Teaching Council Awards and Citations CeremonyLisa Paul, Secretary – Department of Education, Sydney Opera House, 16 August 2011

Published articles are reproduced with permission.