ALTF Student Success Series | Not drowning, waving (though the sniff of a lifeline wouldn’t go astray): A 2017 HE retrospective.

12th December 2017

Student success blog

ALTF Student Success Blog 1

2017 in review: All at sea?

It might fairly be observed that 2017 has been a(nother) year of turbulent ebbs and flows for Australian higher education. But, as we ride the waves towards year’s end, despite my instinctively black-hat inclinations, I remain hopeful for our pedagogical soul, despite the contrary winds that buffet our sector.

While we worry and wait for the inevitable Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) higher education (HE) cuts – Will it be HEPPP? Or research funding? Will caps be reimposed? Some other debilitating, unanticipated expenditure reduction to throw us off course? – despite everything, we will mostly continue, quite virtuously, to do our research, teach and support our students, redesign our 21st century curricula to prepare students for an uncertain world of future work, and engage with our multitude of communities. Because that is what we do. And we do it with passion and earnest integrity because we know in our hearts and minds that, quite fundamentally, what we do has the potential to make a very real difference to individual lives and extended communities.


Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash


Over here in HE learning and teaching backwaters in particular, what gets us up in the morning is an abiding belief in the transformative power of education. As Bradley reminded us “higher education can transform the lives of individuals and through them their communities and the nation by engendering a love of learning for its own sake and a passion for intellectual discovery” (2008, 5).

Finding safe harbour

I have been prompted to reflect on this again over recent weeks, as I have had the enormous privilege, with hundreds of my closest friends, to hear and be inspired by dedicated colleagues (both academic and professional) and by our articulate, agentic students. It matters not what the occasion might be – the 2017 TEQSA Conference, my own discipline of law (in common with brethren disciplines) being exercised around ‘Where to next’ for legal education innovation in the face of professional unbundling and educational disruption, or the launch of a new first year model to value and respect students’ aspirations for learning and success. Quite regardless, it seems that the sector’s pedagogical trustees are determined to harness (or ignore) the elements that threaten to drown us and steadfastly turn their gaze to finding safe harbour and sanctuary for all learners, but particularly for those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

While co-ordinated, systemic educational innovation is hard to wrangle in a post-Office for Learning & Teaching (OLT) world, as the year draws to a close, we continue to sail the fair winds of OLT legacy Grants and Fellowships. To take but two cogent examples, each of which leverages previous fine work and courses chartered: Prof Sally Varnham’s Fellowship on Students in Partnership has been critical in bringing Australian HE into international alignment on this aspect of student engagement, while Professor Dawn Bennett’s recently launched Student Employability Starter Kit enables all students and teachers to embed and support career development learning without the usual implications of cost, time and resourcing.

We were on the right course…

While it did not salvage the good ship OLT, 2017 also saw the release of Margaret Hicks’s robust sector-wide evaluation of OLT’s influence and impact on four L&T priority themes of enormous importance to our Australian sector’s world class reputation: English Language, Academic Integrity, Learning Analytics (Student Retention) and Graduate Employability. In Impact evaluation of key themes funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching 2012-2016 (2017, 6), in answer to the question ‘Did anyone pay any attention at all?’ to “the outcomes from funded OLT fellowships and projects across the identified four key themes, this impact evaluation clearly demonstrate[d] that ‘yes, they did’.” Moreover, the OLT-funded work “continues to grow as people further draw upon and build on these outcomes.”

As Professor Margaret Gardner, now Chair of Universities Australia, wrote for The Conversation in advance of OLT’s closure mid-2016, the Government’s modest investment in OLT (and in its arms-length predecessor bodies) was “a vital statement of our national priorities, of the importance we placed on innovation and excellence in university education. Its value far exceeded its price.”

Interim safe passage and welcome landfall

In the absence of sustained sector-wide investment in and incentivisation of mainstream pedagogical innovation and R&D, we are grateful to have had continued federal funding for the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). The NCSEHE has funded Grants and Fellowships (though no funding is available for Fellows in 2018) that have provided us with critical insights into how to support equity group students’ success

  • online (Stone, 2017);
  • in accessing high-status fields of education (Southgate, 2017);
  • by considering how to reposition reduced Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) funding for greater systemic success (Zacharias, 2017);
  • by strengthening evaluation in Indigenous higher education contexts in Australia (Smith, 2018);
  • for those under-represented students drawn from remote parts of Australia (Pollard, 2017); and
  • by strengthening equity performance and accountability (Brett, 2017).

There have been other patches also of exquisite clarity and most welcome landfall. Early in 2017, UA released its Indigenous Strategy 2017-2020 committing the sector to lifting participation and completion rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; rates which, though improved over recent years, still languish well below parity.

Even if admissions transparency may not improve equity outcomes for under-represented students (who need greater assistance per se to navigate entry pathways), the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) Report, Improving the Transparency of HE Admissions, established unequivocally that only 31% of all admissions are via ATAR; the moral panic that huge numbers of low ATAR students are being admitted to HE courses and pervasively lowering sector standards is simply unfounded. In the same month, the Higher Education Standards (HESP) panel also calmed the murky waters of attrition panic swirling since the advent of the Demand Driven System (DDS). In its Improving Retention, Completion and Success in HE Discussion Paper, HESP said that despite a “long history of concern about higher education student attrition and the factors driving it”, while there had been “fluctuations in retention – and significant variations by institution”, there was “no clear worsening of the overall situation” (HESP, 2017, 5):

“The attrition rate for Australian universities in 2014 is similar to what it was in 2005, despite some movement during that period.”

Trimming the pedagogical mainsail to prevent rounding up (in sailing not a good thing!)

Universities Australia advocated in 2016 (Keep It Clever Policy Statement 2016, 15) that “Support for innovation in teaching and learning is critical to maintain and enhance our competitive edge as a leader in higher education quality… Staying at the forefront of modern teaching and learning practices requires proper financial support.”

In that light, it is pleasing then to see various of the university groups move to fill the post-OLT void. For example, the Australian Technology Network (ATN) has established a collaborative grants scheme for Excellence in Learning and Teaching to fund scholarship and research into L&T and “promote systemic change in the sector”. The Innovative Research Universities (IRU) have appointed an inaugural IRU VCs’ Fellow to pursue enhancements in graduate success. To date, the IRU National Innovation Case Study Collection (created by IRU VC Fellow and ALTF Jessica Vanderlelie), launched by Minister Senator Hon. Simon Birmingham in September 2017, has collected around 150 examples of innovative practice across the IRU which support student and graduate success.

These initiatives are laudable and will obviously have impact within those Networks’ member institutions. However, they will not deliver the whole-of-sector uplift required to maintain our prime reputational positioning.

Not drowning, waving…

What these various examples demonstrate is that, although we are inevitably losing momentum against the tide of aggressive international investment in pedagogical R&D, some continued, albeit inhibited and fragmented, progress in educational innovation continues to be made.

With the option of battening down the hatches being no choice at all, the arguments and lobbying are getting sharper; the pragmatic recent contribution by Mark Warburton on breaking the Demand Driven System policy impasse being a particular recent highlight. Encouragingly also, UA commissioned research shows that voters are clear that backdoor cuts would limit uni access for all Australians and are not to be tolerated. Even if the government doesn’t understand the enormous value and efficiency of free Enabling Programs as a pathway for disadvantaged students, with the failure to enact the recent HE package of cuts, that critical equity enabler remains afloat for the immediate future.

However, we continue to sail too close to the wind without a sustainable, longer term response on the horizon. It has been identified that Australia needs an integrated HE and Voc Ed strategy, one which I would suggest should also incorporate the feeder K-12 sectors. That is one response. Another might be for UA, all HE providers, TEQSA, and government to work co-operatively with our peak student bodies for broad-based sector enhancement.

In the meantime, a perfect storm of funding uncertainty is forcing endless university re-structurings, usually at the behest of one of the Big 4, that impact critical student services and tend to leave both the student and staff experience diminished in their wake. These distractions also dilute pedagogical effort at a time when the new normal of endemic disruption requires its own disruptive pedagogies in response and reimagined 24/7 student support and services. As world economies talk globalisation, automation, AI, and flexibility and when “smart learning, thinking and doing” should be the focus to meet workforce demands for “digital skills [which have gone] up 212%  over three years, while critical thinking increased 158%, [and] creativity increased by 65%” (FYA, 2017, 3), stasis is no response. And, disappointingly, we have seen the tired old debate canvasing the respective value of teaching vs research resurface.

To force the metaphor to an inevitable conclusion (and with apologies for doing so): we are drifting and in clear danger of becoming becalmed, reliant on increasingly infrequent innovation gusts to carry us through the disruption storm. We can wave to attract attention, and are doing so valiantly, but at some stage students and our sector reputation will end up overboard. This is no longer a drill.

We need a lifeline please and thank you. Dedicated educators and professional staff are doing their agentic best, with student success in their hearts and graduate outcomes as their focus. There is no claim here of victim status but good intentions without research-like incentivisation will not be enough. To be clear, there are no rivers of gold flowing to pedagogical innovation in our sector.

Making the case for a fair go for all Australians, to ensure no one, region or industry is left behind, Universities Australia (UA) channelled Brian Cox to opine recently: “Having a larger group of Australians with a university-level education isn’t some crazy over-credentialing spree. It’s a clear-eyed investment in the skills required for jobs in the years ahead.”

Exactly! In this week as we celebrate the very best our sector has to offer at the annual national Australian Awards for University Teaching, this discussion could not be more timely.



Professor Sally Kift is the President of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows network

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The Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows network includes Australia’s leading higher education scholars, who bring a wealth of experience in evidenced-based approaches to support student success and high-quality learning and teaching.

In recognition of this expertise, we have created the ALTF Student Success blog: a forum for Fellows to share their insights and contribute to the national higher education conversation. The blog will be published on a monthly basis, with special out-of-round editions released in response to hot topics.
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