University reform is needed urgently to improve teaching standards, curricula, and academic freedom, writes theology professor Matthew Ogilvie.
Three news stories tell a lot about contemporary higher education. In 2020, Pearson Educational, the 177-year-old educational publisher, was overtaken in value by Chegg, a subscription service widely used by students for cheating. Perhaps the students should not have wasted their money: students at an Australian university were told that, due to staff underpayment, not all parts of their assignments would be marked. At another university, a professor posted a picture of himself lecturing to an empty classroom because all the students were working at home.
I am fortunate to work in an environment where high standards of education are valued. However, many other academics think academic standards have been reduced, alongside a steady stream of academic fads and challenges to academic freedom. The neglect of high-quality education has created an environment in which cheating, ‘woke’ ideologies, and poor outcomes are too common. While this does not occur at all universities, downward pressure has been put on the good ones struggling to compete in the current climate.
Australian taxpayers would rightly expect the $20 billion of their money allocated to universities this financial year to be spent well on education—the core business of universities. But in a June 2021 speech, the then Education Minister Alan Tudge complained that:
I have had almost every Vice-Chancellor talk to me about research and international students, but not many talk to me about their ambitions for Australian students.
While the compromise of teaching standards came into sharp focus during the COVID crisis, it has been festering for some time. In 2020, the Australian Association of University Professors claimed that “this acute crisis in the Australian public university system has been decades in the making—COVID-19 just tipped it over the edge”. Today, instead of lectures given by senior faculty being supplemented by smaller tutorials, it is now common for students to be given a video lecture followed by large group gatherings of students in which personal attention and engagement are impossible.
In that light, the former minister recently backed calls by many university students to be compensated for their poor learning experiences. He compared the students’ situation to one where someone who paid for a Mercedes Benz was instead given a Corolla.
This is especially evident in the shift to online education that was accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis. While online education can be very effective, one hears of online classes so large that students have no opportunity to raise questions or have meaningful interaction. Indeed, surveys of students by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in 2020 found that:
… a very large proportion of respondents in the various surveys commented that they did not like the experience of online learning and did not wish to ever experience it again.
More than a third (34 per cent) of students complained about “lack of/inadequate academic interaction”, while 29 per cent highlighted a “lack of engagement”. Students also complained that because online classes were shorter than face-to-face classes, they were left to do more work for themselves. They reported their experience being “unsettling” and many commented “they didn’t think they were getting value for money”.
Large classes and minimal interaction have been creeping into higher education even before COVID. They have meant students experience only lower-order learning, which involves the transfer of information to passive hearers. Students miss out on the higher-order learning and skills development that come from the social experience of active learning, which involves questions and answers, debates, the testing of ideas, and the development of informed, critical thinking.
When he highlighted these issues, the former minister called for:
… a focus in our universities on how to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students. And this must start with a return to the previous face-to-face learning.
The growth in online education has facilitated the increase in cheating. Certainly, the two have correlated. Melbourne’s Herald Sun reported that at Monash University a “sophisticated contract cheating network” was operating among its students, and that:
- Hundreds of dodgy contract cheating businesses are risking jail time and threatening academic integrity by writing university assignments for cash.
- Scores of advertisements for Melbourne-based cheating and assignment-writing businesses are listed on sites including Facebook Marketplace, Airtasker, and Gumtree.
Poor teaching prompts cheating and the internet makes it easier. The Chegg service gives students access to a bank of answers to textbook questions. It also allows them to submit original questions for an expert answer, often in only half an hour. The internet has also made it easy for students to access online essay services, whether they are free services or essay factories that provide custom-written essays for a fee.
Political correctness and critical race theory cannot survive rigorous debate.
While the problems facing higher education were felt strongly during the pandemic, the problems appear to run deeper and were only intensified by the pandemic. Staffing is a key problem. For a long time, at some universities high numbers of senior faculty have been devoted to research while too much undergraduate teaching was left to less-experienced casual staff. There have been widespread claims of wage theft, redirection of resources from teaching to research, and cost-cutting that have impacted teaching quality. An ABC report (18/8/20) revealed:
Tutors at some of Australia’s sandstone universities are being told to do a ‘poor job’ and ‘skim read’ student essays to meet impossible marking pay rates.
While this problem has been felt acutely recently, it has been developing many years before COVID. A 2011 report by the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education showed academic casualisation has been growing significantly since 1990. There have been concerns that teaching quality has suffered in such an environment. For example, a report prepared for the Australian Learning and Teaching Council in 2008 expressed the concern that “quality assurance of sessional teaching in many institutions is inadequate”.
If we look at the content of university education overall, Dr Bella d’Abrera— Director, Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the IPA—paints a bleak picture familiar to IPA readers, most notably in her 2017 report, ‘The Rise Of Identity Politics: An Audit Of History Teaching At Australian Universities’. She found most Australian universities focus their history programs on themes such as identity politics, and only three history programs—at the University of Notre Dame, Campion College, and Federation University—gave adequate coverage to the learning category she called ‘Essential Core Topics in the History of Western Civilisation’.
If we bring together standards and content, we see that the universities that taught authentic history also scored well for teaching quality. In the national Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) Graduate Outcomes Survey, released pre-COVID in May 2018, Federation University “was ranked first in Victoria for undergraduate student support, skill development, teaching quality, overall employment, and median salary…” At the same time, the University of Notre Dame scored third in Australia for teaching quality, and second for overall experience. It seems teaching quality and content quality go together. To put the point concretely, neither political correctness nor critical race theory can survive rigorous debate in an atmosphere of high-quality active student engagement. But they can survive large classes where students only experience a passive transfer of knowledge.
The problems facing Australian universities were aggravated by the uncapping of university places initiated by Julia Gillard, which saw domestic undergraduate numbers rise by 45 per cent between 2008 and 2017, with an inevitable dilution of the talent pool. Information from the Federal Education Department shows that, despite the fact that half of them were expected to not complete their degrees, more than 6,000 students were admitted to university last year from the cohort of the lowest 10 per cent of ATAR scores.
The rankings obsession has diverted resources away from teaching and beneficial research.
Admitting such underprepared students not only compromises the effectiveness of education, but also seems dreadfully unfair to these students who would be better placed in training elsewhere, and where they would probably find much better job prospects. These students seem to have poor academic preparation. They are also at considerable financial risk because they still have to pay their fees, even if they fail. The problem is likely to get worse because the new Labor Federal Government has committed to 20,000 more places at universities, but has no substantial plan to fix the underlying problems facing Australian higher education.
The crisis in higher education is real, but the fault is not entirely with the universities. The foundational problem has been with the metrics used to evaluate universities, the most influential of which has not been graduate standards but international university rankings. Australian National University Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt highlighted the problem:
Everyone says [rankings] don’t matter, but they do … They drive students to you, they hold up your prestige in the community and governments. It’s a shame they really aren’t very good.
His point is supported by Professor Andrew Norton at ANU. He noted that rankings are used to attract international students, and they distort the priorities of universities towards the fields favoured by the metrics, which are biased towards research in the sciences and away from humanities research or university teaching.
A key player in these flawed rankings is China, the source of so many international students and money for Australian universities. The highly influential Academic Ranking of World Universities developed by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University weights highly cited research and Nobel Prize winners working at the institutes at 80 per cent.
The CCP values prestige and reputation over quality of education and most certainly over independent critical thinking, so it is no surprise that China has had such an effect on Australian higher education. It is claimed that resources have been diverted to recruiting highly cited researchers, to the point where chasing Chinese rankings and their international students has shifted attention away from the education of Australian students.
While rankings obsession has diverted resources away from teaching, it has also deflected attention away from research that generates knowledge which directly benefits the community. Instead, academics are pressured to publish research for other academics in an effort to increase rankings. In other words, rankings-oriented research is not aimed directly at benefitting the Australian community, but at seeking prestige among other academics.
At the same time, academics have been actively discouraged from researching and solving real-world challenges. Australian scholars have been deterred from solving local issues because such research is hard to get published in the globally ranked journals because the research is ‘Australia-based’.
If we turn away from artificial global rankings and refocus on education, we will be better placed with job-ready graduates, whether they have hard skills in technology or soft skills such as critical thinking, leadership, and effective communication. That focus will emphasise rigorous education and graduates who will share Australian values, including free speech, the pursuit of truth, and pride in our heritage. I would also argue that higher standards of education will also boost the standards of content.
The present loss of Chinese students will probably prove to be a blessing.
Another part of renewing universities is a change of vision. For too long, many have focused inwardly for their own survival. Instead, they need to look outwardly and be more accountable to their stakeholders: taxpayers, students and their families, and Australian businesses and employers. There are models of successful relationships between universities and businesses in Israel, the UK, and California, which if applied in Australian could completely refocus university research. A culture of collaboration between universities and industry would be a firm foundation for solid research and genuine innovation.
The problem is, however, that universities’ priorities have worked against such strong relationships. To be fair, the fault is not just with universities, but with government policies that have directed university funding away from ‘town and gown’ relationships, and towards less relevant academic research. The commercialisation, or real-life application of scholarship, will help to keep education ‘real’ and focused on truth, high standards, and critical thinking skills.
As far as the fixation with rankings is concerned, the present loss of Chinese students will probably prove to be a blessing. We have the opportunity to reject artificial global rankings and get back to the core business of universities. By emphasising job-ready graduates, hard and soft skills, and higher standards, we can renew universities as enterprises of education.
However, it is not clear that such an opportunity will be realised under the current government. Labor has promised that its ‘Future Made in Australia Skills Plan’ will deliver up to 20,000 new university places and that its ‘Australian Universities Accord’ will “deliver accessibility, affordability, quality, certainty, sustainability and prosperity”. But Labor provided no plan to achieve these aims. Indeed, as Andrew Norton points out, Labor’s proposal “would not fix the structural problems” left to it by the previous government.
If changes to higher education are going to be anything more than throwing money at a system that needs deep reform, then pressure needs to be put on the government by the opposition, think tanks, and Australian voters. At the same time, we can look to the universities and colleges that perform well on student experience. In the latest QILT results, Bond University, University of Notre Dame, Campion College, Avondale College, and University of Divinity all stand out. It is no coincidence that the high performers in student experience are those that are thoroughly student oriented, have a religious heritage, and/or are part of a long-standing intellectual tradition. These institutions are also part of a diverse group that cater to their specific students.
Finally, another way to reform universities is through the States. Murdoch University whistleblower Associate Professor Gerd Schröder-Turk pointed out that while universities come mostly under federal control, the States still have significant obligations. In August last year, he wrote that:
Universities are set up under State legislation. The two common excuses that funding and quality regulations are Commonwealth matters do not absolve the State Government of its clear responsibility. … it is a myth that the federal regulator (the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency) ensures high quality. Rather, the TEQSA standards merely set “the minimum acceptable requirements for the provision of higher education”.
He argued that the States should exercise due oversight to ensure universities are meeting their legislated objects and acting in the public interest. He suggested this could occur, in the first place, by focusing on university governance. Should the States bravely exercise their responsibilities, Australian universities could experience their most serious reform in decades.
Matthew Ogilvie is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame, and has spent more than 30 years in higher education in Australia and the US. He currently serves as deputy chair of the WA Liberal Party’s education policy review subcommittee.