Taking university teaching seriously

21 Jul 2013

This report argues that the Commonwealth Government should create 2500 teaching-focused positions in universities as part of a national effort to raise the quality of teaching in higher education.


Australia has national debates about the quality of teaching in our schools. We worry about who is recruited to teach, what qualifications they have, and how well their students learn. Teaching quality in universities has received much less attention. As higher education enrolments expand towards 40 per cent of young people, university teaching needs to be taken much more seriously.

Universities now enrol students who would once have gone straight into work or vocational education. About a quarter of students entering university on lower ATARs never complete their degree. By comparison, university drop-out rates for the most able school leavers are below 10 per cent. The time, talent, and money of a large group of students are going to waste.

Student surveys indicate whether students in Australian universities have conditions and experiences that are conducive to learning. Despite improvements since the 1990s, there is room to do better. Australian students rarely report being pushed to do their best work, are often not actively participating in classes, and have little interaction with academic staff outside of class.

Academics are typically appointed for their subject expertise, with much less attention given to their teaching skills. Most academics have no training in teaching or have taken only short courses. Universities outsource large amounts of teaching to casual staff. Many academics prefer research to teaching.

Better research does not necessarily lead to better teaching. Original empirical analysis conducted for this report investigated the effect of research on teaching. It found that students in highresearch departments have very similar experiences to students in low-research departments.

Teaching-only universities are occasionally proposed as a solution. But this report’s findings suggest that removing research would not on its own solve the teaching problem. Departments that research less have not compensated by building specialisation in teaching. They have similar staffing profiles and practices to departments that research more.

While strong university leadership will ultimately drive quality improvements, government has a modest but important role. Among other things, it should continue to sponsor surveys of students’ learning experiences. It should maintain a competitive student funding system, so students can leave courses with poor teaching.

This report recommends a new, cost-neutral scheme to hire 2,500 teaching-focused staff at all academic levels across twelve universities. Teaching-focused roles can better recruit, develop and recognise effective teachers. A critical mass of skilled university teachers would act as a circuit breaker to research dominance.

Universities have long required research qualifications, sought research talent, and promoted their most able researchers. Teaching-focused academics can help lead a university culture shift that will make teaching an equal partner with research.

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