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It’s all about performance

by Marcia Devlin

The Australian federal government has indicated its intention to introduce partial funding based on yet to be defined performance measures.

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) by the Australian government updates the economic and fiscal outlook from the previous budget and the budgetary position and revises the budget aggregates taking account of all decisions made since the budget was released. The 2017-2018 MYEFO papers state that the Government intends to “proceed with reforms to the higher education [HE] sector to improve transparency, accountability, affordability and responsiveness to the aspirations of students and future workforce needs” (see links below). Among these reforms are performance targets for universities to determine the growth in their Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for bachelor degrees from 2020, to be capped at the growth rate in the 18-64 year old population, and from 1 January 2019, “a new allocation mechanism based on institutional outcomes and industry needs for sub-bachelor and postgraduate Commonwealth Supported Places”.

The MYEFO papers contain no information about these performance targets or institutional outcomes. Department of Education and Training (DET) webpages provide some additional detail, including that “From 2020, access to growth in CGS funding for bachelor degree courses will be performance based” and that “… performance indicators and performance targets will be agreed in 2018”. The website further indicates that data gathered in 2019 on 2018 performance will be used to determine the funding available in 2020. The information goes on to indicate that performance outcomes will only affect CGS funding for bachelor degree courses at public universities that previously had access to demand-driven funding. Access to growth will be based on each university’s achievement of performance objectives “such as attrition, low SES participation and workforce preparedness of graduates” (DET, 2018). Finally, the website states that indicators will be subjected to consultation with the sector.

I’m reminded of a scheme which many HERDSA Connect readers will remember – the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund (LTPF). The LTPF was set up to reward institutions that best demonstrate excellence in learning and teaching. The LTPF specified that funding allocations would be determined once institutions met specific teaching-related requirements, including probation and promotion practices and policies that include effectiveness as a teacher as a criterion for academics who teach, and systematic student evaluation of teaching and subjects – the results of which must inform probation and promotion decisions for these academics.

Once the hurdle requirements outlined above were met, funding allocations were then made on the basis of a set of performance indicators using a complex adjustment methodology. The performance indicators were derived from: the Graduate Destination Survey (GDS) which considered employment status, the type of work graduates are undertaking and any further study undertaken; the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) which recorded graduate level of satisfaction with their generic skills and with teaching as well as overall graduate satisfaction; and DEST’s annual collection of university statistics on student progress rates.

My view around that time when I was an academic developer and a PhD student was that overall, the LTPF was a good thing because it focused attention on learning and teaching at a sectoral and institutional level in a way not previously seen in Australia. My keynote paper at a Vice-Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Colloquium 2007 explained that view. My view now is less naïve, having had the opportunity to better understand the complexity and particular challenges of the higher education landscape in Australia. These include the degree of difficulty in offering quality higher education in a highly competitive mass education context with ever increasing student diversity, and the pace and scale of change in a digital context. Add to that some of the unintended consequences of federal higher education policies  –  policies that have cost reduction intentions and a primary focus on the economic contributions of graduates.  Performance measures now make me very nervous.

Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Senior Vice President and Professor of Learning Enhancement at Victoria University, Australia. This article was commissioned by and was published in HERDSA CONNECT 40/3 Spring, 2018: http://www.herdsa.org.au 

Links

Morrison, S. and Corman, M. (2017). Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2017-18. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Devlin, M. (2007). The scholarship of teaching in Australian higher education: A national imperative. Keynote Paper, Vice-Chancellor’s Learning and Teaching Colloquium 2007, University of the Sunshine Coast.

Department of Education and Training.

 

MarciaDevlin


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Making admissions better in Australia

By Marcia Devlin

In Australia, the federal government has been focused on improving the transparency of higher education admissions. I’ve been concerned and written about this matter for some years, particularly the confusion in prospective students and their families around exclusive admissions criteria being used as a proxy for quality.

The government-appointed Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) were asked to consider and report on how the admissions policies and processes of higher education providers could be made clearer, easier to access and more useful, to inform the choices and decisions of prospective students and their families.

In the context of an increased variety of pathways through which a prospective student can apply or be accepted into higher education in Australia, the HESP found that prospective students, their families and others, including schools, are finding it increasingly difficult to understand the full range of study options and opportunities available, and to understand how they can best take advantage of these options to meet their education and career objectives.

The HESP made 14 recommendations Continue reading

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Election Promises

By Marcia Devlin

When they were in opposition, the now Australian government promised they would make no cuts to education if elected. But that was before the election, you see. Now they have been elected, they are proposing a twenty percent cut to base funding for universities.  It’s after the election now and things are very, very different. The main difference I can see is that opposition are now the government.

While in ‘proposal’ form at the time of writing, this cut will almost certainly go ahead. The government have also proposed a significant increase in the interest rate for the loans Australian students take out to pay their contribution to their study costs through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.  This increase and related changes will deter some students from studying at all; will create lifelong and crippling debt for many graduates; and will have a particularly adverse effect on women graduates who take time out to have and raise children while their study loan debt compounds. There is almost universal opposition to this component of the government’s suit of proposals so its trajectory is less certain.

The government have also proposed the deregulation of fees for study. Fee deregulation has gone so smoothly in the UK, you see, and resulted in such an improvement in fairness, equity, quality and all-round happiness for everyone that they simply could not let the opportunity to do this in Australia pass. Oh, wait … maybe that’s not why we’re doing it. I can’t remember … Continue reading

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Bad News

By Marcia Devlin

The Australian federal government has proposed a budget package that is bad news for higher education. It proposes to: reduce commonwealth funding of programs by a blanket twenty percent and allow universities to charge fees (which they will have to do to make up for the government contribution reduction). Of the ‘profit’ universities make, that is, any portion above the twenty percent that is to be cut from commonwealth funding that universities might choose to charge, the proposal is that one-fifth of that must be set aside to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students.

Australia has the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) where students pay a proportion of the costs of their study. They can take out a loan with a marginal rate of interest and aren’t obliged to start paying it back until they reach an income threshold. The budget package also proposes to apply a real rate of interest to the HECS loans students take out to pay the now increased fees.

Modelling by Ben Phillips at the University of Canberra indicates that Continue reading

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Using students’ admissions rank should be highly qualified

By Marcia Devlin

The Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR, a numerical, relative ranking derived from senior high school performance, is a source of angst for many Australian school leavers hoping to become university students. Many assume, understandably but incorrectly, that the higher the ATAR needed to get into a course of study, the ‘better’ the quality of the course. There is no independent evidence to support this assumption.

However, there is evidence that just under half of the university places offered in Australia this year were made to students who do not have an ATAR. Almost fifty percent of new university students in Australia are mature age, international, vocationally qualified or will have come to university through a myriad of alternative entry schemes. None of these students have the magic number that automatically makes the course ‘better’ quality. It makes one begin to wonder about the point of the ATAR. Continue reading

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Taking university teaching seriously

By Marcia Devlin

University teaching appears to be back in fashion in Australia this year. A report, Taking university teaching seriously, was released this year by an independent think tank, just prior to the federal election. The report argues for a greater number of ‘teaching-focused’ academic staff across the higher education sector. The idea is that teaching-focused academics, as the name suggests, focus their time and effort primarily on teaching and related scholarship. The precise split of time between teaching preparation, practice and scholarship varies depending on the particulars of the appointment. This report followed another earlier in the year commissioned by the commonwealth Office for Learning and Teaching, Teaching-focused academic appointments in Australian universities. Both reports outline the reasons for restricting the growth of such appointments to date and the arguments for potentially increasing them. Continue reading