HERDSA 2011 – day three

One unusual event at this year’s conference was a Q&A panel on “Higher education on the Edge”, facilitated by a Dorothy Illing, with Bruce McKenzie, Carla Drakeford, Professor Andrew Van, Professor Paul Trowler, Dr Jean Philips, and Ian Kimba. We started with the panel’s view of the critical issues for the higher education sector, namely the place of private for profit providers in higher education (including online delivery, financial aid, and accreditation), both large (ie Kaplan) and small; the operation of TEQSA, including the inclusion of the student voice (NUS), the appointments process involved for head positions, and the application of standards within a deregulated system; the status of teaching versus research; new public management of universities, including continuous data collection, accountability and academic standards, managerial language of discourse, value versus ranking etc; the consequences of competition, and maintaining a positive direction for universities so that it continues to be an attractive area to work; increased administrative burdens; the view of students as clients; an integrated tertiary education sector, equitable funding, and how we can meet the Bradley review targets for participation and equity within tertiary education.

My favourite quotes from this session, regarding the university sector: “competing against the smartest people on the world, who are wiling to work themselves to death for free…”, “outcomes data is the new black”, “don’t get between a vice chancellor and a bucket of money”,

One aspect that I have heard spoken about a few times is the focus on student satisfaction in education, which places students in a client focus, and whether they enjoyed their experience. What is important here is finding a balance between student engagement and outcomes, and satisfaction – but we don’t want to move (back) to a system where the student voice is neglected.

Discussion continued from Professor Austin’s thoughts earlier in the conference – that the higher education sector is being lead by government policiies and thinking, rather than being a public policy debate, and the difficulties in influencing public policy from the TAFE and University sectors. The question here, or the issue, is whether values, or for how long values, will come second in setting the direction of the sector. Similarly, the need to communicate our purpose and outcomes to broader public – from a corporatisation view, and also to fight a corporatisation process, in terms of making it clearer what we do, what the purpose of univereities is, and bringing back a focus on the values of a university.

What is a common concern is how universities will cope with widening participation? I have not heard anyone reject the general targets, however, there is a lot of concern about student-staff ratios, and how do we maintain quality in learning and teaching. Is it a necessary consequence that we will have a reduction in quality? I don’t think there is a question that we can continue to deliver quality education, but the questions are there rerecording how do academic staff develop the skills to deal with increased student numbers and student diversity? Will academics be given the support and the time to develop appropriate systems and skills? Will students have to pay more to accommodate this?

We are not alone in this move – the UK white paper, Students at the Heart of the System discusses similar issues, although bringing greater concern with the accompanying increase in student fees, and questions over whether any equity targets can actually be met.

I found out some interesting information regarding the integration of the tertiary sector, and the inequity in funding across the sector – TAFE/VET students are primarily targeting cert 1-4, instead of diploma or advanced diploma level, because university bachelor graduates are moving down to take the entry level positions that diploma etc used to target. The funding and fee requirements for diploma and TAFE/VET bachelor degrees are also an issue which discourages potential students. In the current structure, with separate funding and reporting frameworks, it is going to be very difficult to reach equity targets.

After lunch – which included a fascinating discussion on the current sector environment with a dear friend – I attended a symposium on the place of capstone courses in curriculum, focusing on business and legal education, but with broader impact and based around two ALTC projects: http://www.altc.edu.au/project-curriculum-renewal-legal-education-qut-2009 and http://www.altc.edu.au/project-capstone-courses-undergraduate-business-uq-2010.

A capstone course is broadly defined as a crowning experience or course that comes at the end of a sequence of learning (course) with the specific objective of integrating a body of knowledge and providing an opportunity for students to reflect upon their learning as a whole. Capstone courses are being viewed as increasingly relevant due to the applicability in meeting and observing discipline standards. The discussion started by examining Sally Kift’s transition pedagogy for the first year experience, and what we can learn from this transition when considering the final year experience. Some of the issues that have been identified through interviews with capstone lecturers include the capstone course typically consisting of less lectures (as there is typically less new content introduced in a capstone course than in a non-capstone course) but constructing learning activities in unconventional ways (and dealing with student reactions to unconventional learning activities); personal issues such as specific teaching skills that are required, additional support for the workload of a capstone course and working with colleagues in the integration aspects; and political issues, such as who decides what is going to be taught, logistics and enabling sufficient resources and support from senior staff in providing access to resources and skill training.

Some other interesting pointers from today’s sessions: the use of threshold concepts in understanding and constructing curriculum, http://www.ecm.uwa.edu.au/research/FASE/engineering-threshold-concepts; several perspectives on designing curriculum, including Toohey’s five orientations to curriculum and Barnett and Coate’s three building blocks.

The final keynote for the day was by Professor Paul Trowler, Lancaster, co-author of the second edition of Tribes and Territories,┬átalking about how discipline structures and context pervades unexpected aspects of our workplace, introducing some discipline differences, but perhaps not as many as had been traditionally recorded in the literature. Disciplines are not fixed, but shift according to context etc, and are dynamic – changing the mediating artifacts, such as course documentation, standard surveys, etc, can change the processes and culture of the discipline. He calls for new metaphors to describe the new view of tribes as dynamic entities, that describe fluidity.

This reminds me of a paper that I am currently writing with a colleague from another discipline, although it is going rather slowly, of our experiences in researching and writing a paper together, and how our individual discipline practices both helped and hindered our understanding and progress. I must get back to that paper…

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