Letter from Australia: shadow games

If the UK and Australia have a track record of shadowing each other in higher education policy, then there’s a similar dynamic being played out in the two countries’ premier higher education research centres.

It’s more along the lines of trading directors. First up Simon Marginson moved from his position as co-director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne to University College London’s Institute of Education and it’s Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) in 2013. Five years later, CGHE’s deputy director William Locke has been appointed director of the CSHE. Marginson in the meantime is Oxford-bound.

Raising the profile

When Locke takes up the reins next February he will be walking into a country with a higher education policy vacuum almost as big as the Giant Void (look it up in Wikipedia). It will be his responsibility to apply his accumulated experiences as both a teaching and learning expert and policy wonk with Hefce, the Open University and Universities UK, to HE policy and research in Australia. As co-editor (with Ellen Hazelkorn) of the journal Policy Reviews in Higher Education, one can assume he’s got his finger on the pulse of current HE thinking and analysis and how that plays out around the globe and in particular countries.

The CSHE, which encompasses the LH Martin Institute, holds almost a monopoly on higher education policy and research here. While there are exceptional contributions from think tanks such as the Grattan Institute, occasional pieces from consultancies such as KPMG, Deloitte and Nous Group, as well as regular publications from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Education, there is no real systematic, longitudinal and ongoing research of higher education as a sector. Sad but true.

It is likely that Locke’s appointment came with directions to lift the profile, outputs and quality of research coming out of the CSHE along the lines of the IoE, which has been ranked the best education research centre in the world on numerous occasions. While the Melbourne University is one of only two in Australia to receive the 5* rating (well above world standard) on the Excellence in Research for Australia (our version of the UK’s REF), it’s still not quite in the same realm as the IoE.

Policy in practice

Locke, by his own admission, has a strong policy bent and with the Australian government currently looking at research impact, in addition to ERA, his real-world expertise in this area will be gold.

“It’s been a major priority for me that any research I do has policy impact and engages with policymakers at a very early stage to hopefully influence their thinking throughout,” he says, adding that while the word “impact gets used a lot, I think it is about influence over a longer period of time. It’s about developing relationships.”

On some fronts, Australia consistently lags the UK by several years. Australia adopted it’s ERA in 2011, 25 years after the UK introduced its early incarnations of the REF. Australia has only just got on the research impact and engagement train, with the Australian Research Council currently considering hundreds of case studies submitted by universities toward its first incarnation due early next year.

A word of caution

But it is Australia’s sporadic interest in adopting a version of the Teaching Excellence Framework that makes Locke sit bolt upright. While he says universities need to find ways and means other than pure economic arguments to convince governments of their value, he stresses that the TEF as it stands in the UK is neither clear nor fair in its analysis.

“I would caution against following that particular model,” Locke says. “It doesn’t say much about the quality of teaching and learning that’s going on and talks only about the outcomes of graduates – employment, salaries and so on. “It really hasn’t cracked the value added between starting and finishing higher education.”

Indeed if measuring the value added by teaching and learning is the holy grail, we still have some way to go, he says. “Unfortunately, what we call learning analytics at the moment focus more on the administrative side of education and not much on the actual learning.”

He notes that there is a risk that the TEF might go the way of the high-profile but ultimately failed attempt to measure the value add of teaching and learning known as AHELO which died a slow and rather painful death after get bogged down in politics.

Shorter, sharper, cheaper

While it’s jumping the gun on where the UK’s post-18 review might land, Locke says any movement towards closer funding and policy integration between the HE and FE sectors would only be beneficial. The same is true for Australia.

“But my big hope is that it tries to tackle the terrible drop in part-time HE – there’s been a 60% drop since 2012. When you are talking about a modern economy that needs to train and retrain its highly skilled workers and sees graduates going into jobs that haven’t been invented yet, we have really shot ourselves in the foot by wrecking part-time education for some many older workers.

“We also need to investigate more varied forms of HE, ones that are shorter and cheaper than full three-year degrees. We also need to do online and blended learning better. That’s the key.”

Of course, that is as true for Australia as the UK. While we have not witnessed the same level of retreat in mature age learners re-engaging with education, numbers plateaued some time ago and even saw a substantial decline this year.  

“We need to expand the diversity of HE, ensure that people can come back quite easily and be given credit for smaller chunks of learning in a way that can be proven and authorised.”

In many ways, Locke’s move to Melbourne couldn’t be more timely – a likely change in government with an actual policy agenda combined with learnings from UK failures and successes.

Indeed, Locke says that good research can be overlooked in the policy space because the timing is simply wrong. Perhaps this time his timing is just right.

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