Perhaps, just as questions about age, gender preferences and politics have been made redundant (even illegal), job applicants should no longer be required to name where they studied and recruitment processes should have institutions’ names redacted from all applicants’ listed qualifications.
There is merit in such an approach. Doing so might level the playing field a bit and do better justice to those who have reached the required academic standards from across our entire tertiary environment, as opposed to privileging any particular institution’s named qualifications.
Insanity? Perhaps, but we take the view that our present rankings focus unnecessarily disadvantages the majority of Australian graduates. And as a result, the achievements and potential of Australians from diverse backgrounds who have achieved an academic award are being undervalued.
Change to delivery
COVID-19 or not, the academic world is certainly being forced to confront relevance-driven and budgetary-minded change.
Despite Australia being relatively COVID-free, many of our domestic students are still not back to on-campus learning. The delivery of on-campus lesson is simply not as cost-effective as some newer technological solutions.
The changes to the delivery of tertiary education continue: Campus Morning Mail (9.03.2021) reports that in this COVID economic environment, The University of Sydney plans to adopt a 17-week semester, reducing its semesters to 12 weeks of academic content.
Its rationale is that good academic results are still achievable even with this contraction.
Take out the extant padding of one or two independent student study weeks, mid-semester breaks, roughly two revision weeks and other mandated non-teaching events during each academic semester, and most Australian universities could equally reduce their semesters from around 22 weeks’ duration to 17, or even fewer – probably without adversely impacting student academic outcomes.
Now, in a three-year University of Sydney degree, only 1.38 years will actually involve the delivery of content. That isn’t so different to what already happens with course delivery elsewhere.
And with the increasing use of podcasting, digital classes and Zoom approaches seen as agile, more cost-effective, and expedient delivery mechanisms, it begs the question: How much academic content and learning will take place face-to-face on campuses in the future?
Learner engagement is imperative
Surely it has to be in the quality of the teaching and learning interactions that the impact is made, not where and when students received their course content.
That’s what the QILT 2021 outcomes (currently under embargo) allude to. Undergraduate degrees, after all, are not representative of the pointy end of knowledge creation. Rather, they are the first step towards building foundational knowledge and are, by and large, representative of entry-level standards.
Consequently – and because it is also more cost effective – universities often engage postgraduate students and part-time tutors to assist in this elementary content delivery.
So, do undergraduates in prestige institutions actually get taught by the gun researchers and the various leading intellectual colossuses roaming our hallowed halls of enlightenment? Most usually not.
Highly research-active faculty tend to have other obligations and priorities. Those faculty still building their research profiles are similarly often torn between the demands of achieving research-active identities and juggling the requirements to also teach.
Consequently, when measuring QILT outcomes between research-intensive institutions and private providers, it seems that those operations not compromised by choosing between research and teaching operate both different business models and have a different institutional emphasis.
Solid, accredited, benchmarked, non-research focussed providers of undergraduate degrees rely upon value-adding by remediating any student learning deficits and taking their students through to successful degree completion.
Their business models depend upon them being reliably supportive and effective in teaching and learning. And rightly, such is the nature of the Australian tertiary education environment. Providers are required to meet the same exacting standards as every other university operating in the land – aside from pursuing academic research, that is.
Their faculty are just as qualified as those elsewhere and, thanks to TEQSA, students can be assured that learning and teaching standards will be maintained.
Standards are key
Ultimately, standards are key in this recognition. When were you last asked on an application form or in a job interview: “At which centre did you take your driving test?” or “Where did you learn to drive?” Probably never.
If you gained an Australian driving licence, you will be deemed to have met the required standards. Not even car insurance companies will question which Australian town or state you learnt to drive in.
Similarly, if you’ve achieved a TAFE diploma, which institution you studied in may never be an issue of question for prospective employers. That you reached the required standard is all that is of concern.
There is a solid argument that undergraduate degrees are all of a given standard as mandated by TEQSA. Of course, there are different pathways, embellishments, variations in outcomes and clearly different learning environments in which to study. Yet there is not one established set of metrics to empirically determine why qualifications and learner outcomes from institution A might be superior to those from institution B.
Given that the on-campus learning experience – through a variety of technological and financial pressures – is changing, most undergraduate level teaching is reiterative and standards based. Additionally, it is not (consistently) delivered by the leading academics of any institution; undergraduate students are not axiomatically served differently or better by studying in research-intensive or research-engaged institutions.
With non-research focussed private providers achieving consistently higher QILT outcomes than some of our most prestigious universities in the 2021 assessments, there is a case for looking more closely at the role they and the lower-ranked universities play in value adding and creating competent and successful undergraduates to (hopefully) join our national workforce.
Moreover, these new graduates may later move into our higher-ranked universities to further their academic careers.
Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is currently a higher education consultant.
Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is currently deputy vice chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.Do you have an idea for a story?
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