When borrowing learning and teaching ideas from the UK, make sure to learn from them as well

Some of the educational development recommendations in Australia’s higher education review will look familiar to UK readers. Letizia Gramaglia looks for lessons learned

Letizia Gramaglia is Director of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy at the University of Warwick

Spending the past six months in Australia on a secondment from a UK university has been an enjoyable way to embrace new perspectives and deepen my understanding of different educational contexts.

The excitement of this experience has been heightened by the recent release of the Australian Universities Accord final report, which underscores the central role of higher education in shaping Australia’s future social and economic prosperity.

The report has sparked extensive discussion across the sector. The primary focus so far has been on funding changes, targets for expanding access, and streamlining of skilled migration, with relatively less emphasis on the ramifications for learning and teaching.

Yet much of the report’s overarching ambition rests ultimately on the development of more inclusive, dynamic and flexible curricula. This presents a significant opportunity to foster diversification and innovation in learning, teaching, and assessment – but it will require tangible commitment and careful implementation to ensure that academics feel both supported and enabled to engage with relevant professional development, collaborate meaningfully with stakeholders, introduce, and evaluate changes.

Professional standards

Reflecting on my experiences back in England, the pressure to review curricula and implement programmatic assessment has intensified in recent years in order to comply with Office for Students registration requirements. General lack of resources to prioritise this work has contributed often to the frustration of an already fatigued academic workforce.

In contrast, the Accord report advocates investment in a number of areas, including the professionalisation of teaching to equip educators with the skills and knowledge necessary to support student success:

Raising teaching status, professionalisation and training for teaching in higher education institutions will be important for these cohorts [the “many more students from diverse backgrounds” that the report says are needed]. The Review recommends that professional standards be developed for Australian higher education teaching, modelled on the framework administered by Advance HE in the United Kingdom (see Recommendation 31). Formalising professional standards should raise the status of higher education teaching as a whole and allow staff to demonstrate their skills and accomplishments as they pursue academic careers.

The recommendations to adopt professional standards modelled after the Professional Standards Framework (PSF) – and to introduce minimum teaching qualifications (“all higher education teaching staff, including sessional staff and PhD students engaged in teaching, should be encouraged to gain an accredited teaching qualification”) hold the potential for meaningful transformation.

But their effectiveness will rely on thoughtful execution within specific institutional contexts.

Professional standards can be a powerful tool to stimulate reflective practice and promote evidence-based approaches. Many universities in Australia have already invested in socialising and embedding accredited provision mapped to the PSF, with emerging evidence of a positive impact on the student learning experience. But concerns also loom that, in some cases, the experience can be reduced to a “metric-driven, tick-box exercise.”

The report’s underlying focus on ensuring value for money and heightened accountability for teaching quality via frequent monitoring and evaluation runs the risk of driving institutions towards compliance-led behaviours that can undermine genuine engagement in educational development and professional recognition.

No child TEF-ed behind

There is also a plan to develop a comprehensive Teaching Quality Framework – directly inspired by the TEF:

New and existing metrics should be brought together in a comprehensive Australian Higher Education Teaching Quality Framework covering multiple domains such as institutional investment, staffing and professional development, student cohort diversity, learning and employment outcomes, and student experience. In the United Kingdom, the Teaching Excellence Framework administered by the Office for Students fulfills this role. […]

An aim of the framework would be to make transparent to higher education institutions, students, government and the broader Australian community whether public expenditure on teaching is being effectively used to ensure good learning outcomes for students from all walks of life. Increased accountability can ensure quality continues to be a central consideration for higher education providers, driving towards a system where university-led continuous improvement in teaching standards is the norm across the system. The framework would also help regulators identify and address emerging challenges to the quality of learning and teaching.

This plan should prompt serious reflection amongst educational leaders in Australia. Those of us who have inhabited TEFlandia for almost a decade now would dispute the assumption of a direct relationship between the TEF, its metrics, and teaching quality.

What can be fruitful, however, is the leveraging of external policy and reward mechanisms to rebalance institutional priorities and further strategic enhancement in education. Where this has been most successful, we have seen changes in reward and recognition of teaching through the revision of academic promotion pathways; the use of data to better understand educational challenges and improve the student experience; and the meaningful integration of student voice in both curriculum and governance structures.

Lessons learned

The sector’s growth needed to accommodate and sustain the projected rise in student enrolment envisaged in the report will demand a substantial influx of educators. Australian universities could face two main challenges in this regard: ensuring the large number of graduate teaching assistants already employed in the system receive adequate professional development in learning and teaching, and ensuring that academia remains an attractive career choice.

Many academics in the UK would echo the sentiment that the regulatory climate of the past ten years has had an adverse impact on education, stifling teaching innovation and reducing enthusiasm in the profession.

So, while the report holds great promise for the future of higher education in Australia, the sector could glean crucial lessons from our UK experience. If Australian universities can work together to inform the next phase of Accord’s vision, they could avert the imposition of an external watchdog and the replication of an ill-suited formula for measuring the value and quality of their teaching.

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