higher education

Education: the five concerns we should debate right now

Meghan Stacey on the trouble with teaching

Deb Hayes on making school systems more equitable.

Phillip Dawson on how we should treat ChatGPT.

Sarah O’Shea on widening participation at university.

Scott Eacott on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement.

The trouble with teaching by Meghan Stacey

Last year was a big one for teachers. In NSW, where I live and work, years of escalating workload, the relentless intensity of the job and salaries that are declining in real terms were compounded by reports of debilitating staff shortages leading to considerable strike action. The latter half of 2022 then saw a NSW inquiry and a federal action plan aiming to address such shortages. Nevertheless, government responses to these issues have been critiqued as focusing too much on supply and not enough on retention. Concerns about teachers’ working conditions do not seem to have really been heard, and there’s not much point talking about supply, or any other challenge for education in 2023, until we truly have that conversation. 

Australian teachers work long hours, and complete considerable administrative labour when compared internationally. It is true that some steps are being taken to reduce teachers’ administrative load, but not always in a way that recognises the intellectual and creative complexity of their work. And according to the Teachers Federation, when NSW schools go back in just a few days, they will be starting their year with a whopping 3,300 vacant positions. So there is much still to be done, and I wonder: in 2023, will action be taken that adequately addresses the depth of disquiet rumbling amongst the profession?

Making our schooling systems more equitable by Deb Hayes

This draws on parts of my book with Craig Campbell.

In terms of funding, how much is enough to provide a good education to an Australian child? This question has occupied policymakers for decades. 

In 1973, a Whitlam-appointed committee proposed eight school categories A-H, A being the highest. It argued that support for schools in Category A with resource levels already above agreed targets be phased out because government aid could not be justified for maintaining or raising standards beyond those that publicly funded schools could hope to achieve by the end of the decade.

Today, Commonwealth funding for schools is needs-based and calculated according to the Schooling Resource Standard, which estimates how much public funding a school needs to meet its students’ educational needs. 

Sounds good? Well, not really, because schools that already have enough to provide a good education receive federal government funding due to an amendment by Fraser to Whitlam’s proposal. Under current funding arrangements, public schools in all states except the ACT will be funded at 91% of their SRS index or less by 2029.

It’s time to pause government funding to non-government schools that already have enough to provide a good education until all public schools are funded at 100% of their SRS.

Challenges for Widening Participation by Sarah O’Shea

2023 will usher in both challenges and opportunities for widening participation in Australian higher education, not least of which is the predicted growth in school leavers. Those born under the Costello ‘baby boom’ of 2005-2008 will be leaving school from 2023, with an almost 20% increase in this age cohort by 2030 (Productivity Commission, 2022). While this is good news for a post pandemic higher education sector, ensuring equity in the face of greater competition for places will be an important challenge moving forward for the sector. 

Given the greater number and diversity of participants, how we conceive and categorise what ‘equity’ is, will be key. The current six equity categories were defined in the eighties and research has indicated the limitations of these outdated classifications (Tomaszewski et al, 2018). The diversity of current and future student populations requires expanded definitions of ‘who’ our equity students are, definitions are that are both more granular in nature and also, responsive to emerging trends in higher education participation. Any changes in definitions need to be accompanied by a better measurement of cumulative disadvantage, recognising that students often belong to multiple equity groups and that this membership has distinct impacts at different stages of the student life cycle (Tomaszewski et al., 2020). 

For 2023 and beyond, contextualised and targeted approaches to supporting growing diverse populations will be required. Approaches that cater to both the uniqueness of our students and also, specific learning environments. Of course, such bespoke approaches to widening participation are resource intensive. In an environment of reduced funding and pressure to meet equity performance benchmarks, this too will be a challenge for institutions, particularly regional universities who are often serving the most disadvantaged communities. 

ChatGPT is the least capable it will ever be. What can we do about it. By Phillip Dawson

I asked ChatGPT to “Write 200 words about the challenge that ChatGPT poses to education
in 2023”. It gave me a 283 word response, starting with:
“ChatGPT poses several challenges to education in 2023. One of the most significant
challenges is that it has the ability to generate human-like text, which makes it difficult to
distinguish between machine-generated content and that written by a human. This can lead
to concerns about plagiarism and the authenticity of information, making it more difficult
for educators to ensure that students are producing original work.”
Like much of the media commentary, ChatGPT has jumped straight to academic integrity
concerns. Yes, this is a challenge. Assessment has become harder thanks to the emergenceide
of generative artificial intelligence.
But that’s not the whole picture. These tools are getting more and more sophisticated, and
are already used in society to be creative, have fun, and get stuff done. Rather than focusing
so much on the threats posed by ChatGPT traditional assessment practices, we might need
to question how fit for purpose our assessments are for the world our students will inhabit
when they graduate. Because these tools are currently the least capable they’ll ever be.
I hope 2023 is the year where we double down on what we could call “future-authentic
assessment”: assessment that considers what’s likely to happen to the world.

Where’s the discussion of funding? Scott Eacott on the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement.

Setting national education policy is a complex task. This is made even more difficult in Australia given the constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states and territories but the
commonwealth government controls the finances. Therefore, while legislation and national
declarations establish the social contract between government and its citizens (equity and
excellence in school provision), jurisdictional sovereignty can get in the way of reform.

Friday’s release of the Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement
(NSRA) highlights the complexity. The NSRA is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth,
states, and territories with the objective of delivering high quality and equitable education for all
Australian students (the social contract). There is a lot to unpack in the review with considerable
media attention on the failure of the NSRA to improve student outcomes. I want to raise three key
systemic points:

1) Common critiques of federalism focus on overlap in responsibilities (e.g., funding of schools) and
duplication as state and territory groups replicate national policies and initiatives (e.g.,
professional standards, curriculum). This imposes artificial divisions in a complex policy domain
whose actions impact well beyond state or territory borders. There are reduced opportunities
for engagement, surrendering some of the strengths of a federal system of government and the
removal of important failsafe mechanisms, as each jurisdiction seeks to assert its independence
and sovereignty. Achieving uniformity across eight jurisdictions is difficult, time consuming, and
often reduces initiatives to the lowest common denominator.
2) Despite some concerns about new data points (e.g., additional testing, administrative
paperwork), the review calls for greater reporting and transparency from states and territories.
In most – if not all – cases, the data points already exist. What the review argues is for a common
basis for new targets but greater flexibility in how jurisdictions pursing delivering on them. This
flexibility comes with greater accountability for performance of reforms against benchmarks.
That is, each jurisdiction will be held to accountable for how their reforms deliver on targets.
Such reporting would make it clear when reforms are, and are not, working for students.

3) Funding was excluded as a topic for discussion in the review. Since at least the first Gonski
Report, the funding of Australian schools has been a central issue. As the NSRA was established
on the back of a $319B funding deal for schools, the achievement of its objective cannot be
achieved unless funding mechanisms ensure equitable distribution of funds to schools and
specifically the targeting of funding to those schools and students most disadvantaged.

As noted, there is plenty to unpack, and the above just point to some key systemic issues in design in a
process focused on improving outcomes for students and holding jurisdictions to account for their
reforms in meeting agreed targets.

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy and is the director of the Bachelor of Education (Secondary). Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. She is an associate editor, The Australian Educational Researcher Links: Twitter & University Profile

Debra Hayes is professor of education and equity, and head of the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work.  Her most recent book (with Ruth Lupton) is Great Mistakes in Education Policy: How to avoid them in the Future (Policy Press, 2021). She tweets at @DrDebHayes.

Professor Phillip (Phill) Dawson is the Associate Director of the Centre for Research inAssessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University. His two latest books are Defending Assessment Security in a Digital World: Preventing E-Cheating and Supporting Academic Integrity in Higher Education (Routledge, 2021) and the co-edited volume Re-imagining University Assessment in a Digital World (Springer, 2020). Phill’s work on cheating is part of his broader research into assessment, which includes work on assessment design and feedback. In his spare time Phill performs improv comedy and produces the academia-themed comedy show The Peer Revue.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

Scott Eacott PhD, is deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and professor of education in the School of Education at UNSW Sydney and adjunct professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Saskatchewan.

Top of the pops: AARE’s Hottest Ten 2022

Thank you to all our contributors in 2022. We published over 100 blog posts this year from academics all over Australia, from research students to DECRA fellows, to deans and professors. Thank you all for being part of our community and many thanks to the AARE executive, especially newly-minted Professor Nicole Mockler.

Didn’t get to write this year? Want to contribute? Here are notes for contributors. Pitch to me at jenna@aare.edu.au.

The 2022 AARE EduResearch Matters blog of the year, announced at the AARE conference in Adelaide: “Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage”. La Trobe’s Babak Dadvand wrote a compelling account of one way to address the teacher shortage.

It is genuinely hard to choose the best because every single blog reveals new ideas and new thinking about education but I’ll just list our ten most read for 2022 (and of course, some of our older posts have racked up thousands and thousands of views). So many others were excellent and please look at our comprehensive archive.

Here we go! 2022 top ten.

Babak Dadvand on the teacher shortage.

Inger Mewburn: Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Debra Hayes: Here’s what a brave new minister for education could do right away to fix the horrific teacher shortage

Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway: There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Marg Rogers: Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

Rachel Wilson: What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Simon Crook: More Amazing Secrets of Band Six (part two ongoing until they fix the wretched thing)

(And part one is now one of our most read posts of all-time)

Alison Bedford and Naomi Barnes: The education minister’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea*

Martina Tassone, Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Linda Gawne: No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Thank you to all of you for making this such a lovely community, looking forward to hearing from you and a special thank you to Maralyn Parker who has now been retired from the blog for two years but is still a fantastically supportive human when I need urgent help.

Jenna Price

We asked academics to be real about work. Here are our new findings

My children were two and three years old in March of 2020 when Sydney went into its first COVID-19  lockdown.  At the time, I was in an education-focussed leadership role but also still teaching and conducting research.

I was supporting my colleagues as they pivoted to online learning at the same time as helping implement widespread changes to education within the School and also reassuring students across our School that we were doing everything in our power to maintain education quality in an ever-changing environment. 

I was also moving my own class online at the same time.  Research fell off the radar – if it didn’t have an immediate deadline like other things in life (e.g. speaking to cohorts of students to assuage the uncertainty they were feeling, getting a lecture online, helping a colleague figure out how to deliver an in-person assessment online, feeding children, or even just sleeping), it wasn’t getting done.  Even when I wasn’t in charge of childcare, my little ones would come looking for me – and how do you tell a two-year-old that you have to work and can’t play right now?    

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on academic mothers has many long-term implications on career progression and alleviating this gendered impact should be a priority for administrators worldwide.

Of course, I was not alone.  Research that Adriana Zeidan, Lee-Fay Low, Andrew Baillie, and I conducted on the impact of COVID-19 on the productivity of academics around the world confirms this.  And worse, these impacts were hugely gendered. What’s particularly novel about our study is its potential for accuracy.  Instead of asking people to think back to their day or their week and estimate how often they were doing a particular task, we were instead able to ping our participants at six random time-points per day (during their self-nominated waking hours) and ask them what they were doing in that moment.  This led to more accurate responses, and strengthened our work.  

Our research showed that in June and July of 2020, when we conducted our study: 

  • Academic mothers were 4.25 times more likely than academic fathers to be caring for children when contacted to complete the survey.
  • Academic mothers were 3 times more likely than academic fathers to multitask, and nearly 5 times more likely to multitask by doing an activity and caring for children simultaneously.
  • Mothers were 74% more likely to have had their work interrupted in the last hour.
  •  Parents were 57% less likely than non-parents to be working on research when contacted.
  • Academic parents (especially mothers) were found to be less likely to have access to uninterrupted work time.
  • Non-parents were working on research related tasks around 20% of the time they were contacted, while fathers were working on research 17% of the time, and mothers only 11% of the time.

And our results have resonated with readers on social media.  Within 36 hours of sharing the main points of  our study  in a thread on twitter, parts of it had been shared over 1,000 times.  People were retweeting with their own experiences and calling on senior academics to take this work into account when evaluating staff on their productivity.  Differences in ability to spend time on research will have lasting impacts on career progression.  

Recognising that equity is not the same as equality, one-size-fits-all approaches such as extending tenure clocks for all academics currently working towards tenure will only stand to increase gender disparities in the professoriate down the line (Khamis-Dakwar & Hiller, 2020).

As we know, impacts on publishing in 2020 and 2021 (and even now in 2022) will not be readily apparent for some time.  Given how much longer the publication process is taking, we may not see the true effects for a few years.  However, given how trajectories are used in funding and promotion applications, a dip in productivity could have career-long implications if we are not careful.  For many years we’ve had a leak in the pipeline in academia, where women were more likely to trickle out of the academic workforce due to biases and barriers along the way.  Covid has the potential to undo the work we have done to repair those leaks, leading to further gender disparities in our academic environments. 

We must find concrete and tangible ways to ensure that mothers are able to bounce back from the setbacks they may have experienced during Covid.  Everyone needs to remember those changes that mothers will not forget – the days of caring for children while trying to work, the hundreds of interruptions in an hour, the loneliness, the isolation, and the associated reduced ability to conduct research – while other people were experiencing the opposite:  quiet time, without meetings or other interruptions.  

We should watch vigilantly for an ever-widening gap in publishing between men and women to emerge.  We need to gauge impacts on access to grant funding, and we need to see how it affects career progression (in hiring, in tenure, in promotion).  We need to implement policies that will decrease disparities, support people who were most impacted, and ensure that we don’t lose women before we get the chance to implement support and effect change. 

As some have said, we were all in the same storm, but we were not all in the same boat.  We must advocate for, and implement policies to support, those whose careers are most at risk after this period when mothers, in particular, were working all the time, but still unable to produce in the same way others were.  If we don’t pay attention, and we don’t actively work to alleviate these differences, the impact on career progression for women in academia will be huge. 

The leaky pipeline (Pell, 1996) is not going away, unless we make changes to recognise and ameliorate the barriers that groups of colleagues experience before, during and beyond the immediate Covid-19 crisis.

A few essential things to note: First, in the paper we refer to people who identify as women and have children as mothers, and those who identify as men who have children as fathers.  Unfortunately our statistical approaches were not sophisticated enough to incorporate more than a binary categorization, though we absolutely recognise that gender is a spectrum.  

Second, none of this would have been possible without the entire team.  Adriana Zeidan, despite being a master’s student studying during lockdown, managed the survey and PACO enrollment process from start to finish, and without her, none of this would have happened.  Andrew Baillie was instrumental in managing our very complicated dataset and advanced statistical modelling, and he and Lee-Fay Low’s strategic guidance were invaluable in planning and publishing.  

Roxanna Nasseri Pebdani, (PhD, CRC, SFHEA) is Director of Participation Sciences in the Sydney School of Health Sciences and Acting Head of the Discipline of Rehabilitation Counselling, both in the Faculty of Medicine and Health. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the American University of Paris, a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counselling from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. in Counsellor Education from the University of Maryland. She completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington. She has been at the University of Sydney since July 2018. The lovely photo in the header image is of Pebdani’s children.

The kids aren’t all right. Neither are staff.

Good morning on R U OK? Day 2022. Today’s the perfect day to ask our higher education (HE) students how they are doing. According to the latest national 2021 Student Experience Survey (SES) released late last month, the answer is a depressing ’not so good’. The 2021 data again show that the top ranked reason for the 19% of undergraduate students in Australia who consider early departure from their course is ‘health or stress’. For those students who consider leaving, 50% say this is why. The next highest ranked reasons, also consistently reported over the last several years (2015-2021), are all risk factors that can combine to further exacerbate students’ health or stress: study/life balance; workload difficulties; need to do paid work; financial difficulties; expectations not met; and personal reasons. Students lead complex and complicated lives! 

While some might say that considering leaving is not the same as actual leaving, this somewhat misses the point. It is enough and concerning that so many students feel overwhelmed in this way and that their learning engagement and student experience are so obviously impacted as a consequence. These findings also confirm what we have known for many years. Tertiary students are a ‘very high-risk population for psychological distress and mental disorders’ compared to the general population. Pre-pandemic, the prevalence and severity of mental wellbeing issues were well-known and increasing across student cohorts. In 2017, Orygen found that more than half of HE students aged 16–25 years reported high or very high levels of psychological distress and were more likely to consider an early exit from their course as a result. The National Tertiary Student Wellbeing Survey (2016), conducted by Headspace for the National Union of Students, similarly found that:

  • 67% of young students (16-25 years) and 59% of mature students (26-50+ years) rated their mental health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor’;
  • 65% of young students and 53% of mature students reported high or very high psychological distress; and
  •  Only 1.6% of young students and 3.4% of mature students reported no impact of study on their mental health in the past year.

Certain cohorts have been identified as particularly at-risk, including equity group students who, given their frequent intersectionality, may experience compounded disadvantage. These cohorts include, for example, students who are: young; Indigenous; international; from rural/remote areas; identify as LGBTQIA+; with disability; from low socio-economic backgrounds; HDRs; and/or studying law and medicine.

And then along came COVID. Already high levels of student distress increased as many students felt overwhelmed, isolated and frustrated in the rapid transition to new ways of learning, working and living. For example, one study found that the percentage of HE and vocational education students reporting extremely high levels of distress during the pandemic (at 23%) was higher than before the pandemic (at 19%); considerably higher than for the general population at 3% pre-COVID and 13% during COVID. University counselling services that were already finding it difficult pre-COVID to meet escalating demands for support and struggling with increasing complexity and severity of presentations had to move completely online.

It’s not just situational and personal factors that affect students’ mental health. There is considerable evidence also that ‘how students are taught and assessed, and how they engage with learning, can have an impact on their wellbeing’. That evidence has been available both pre– and over-COVID, and some excellent resources have been developed in response (for example, Nicole Crawford’s NCSEHE Fellowship and the seminal work of Baik and her colleagues). Recently, a large-scale project in the UK has also focused on how curriculum can support wellbeing and learning, and has developed an Education for Mental Health Toolkit.

Not just student mental wellbeing

Academic and professional staff are also at risk, awareness of which has also been raised both pre– and over-COVID. In the UK, Morrish analysed data obtained under Freedom of Information requests of HE providers in a study that could be usefully replicated in Australia. She found:

  • Evidence of an escalation of poor mental health among university staff in the period 2009 to 2016, based on data obtained from 59 HE providers on referrals to counselling and occupational health services; and 
  • That referral increases of 50% were common over that period, with some universities experiencing much higher rises: in counselling, up to 316% and in occupational health up to 424%.

When updating these data in April 2020, Morrish and Priaulx found that ‘analysis of 17 universities reveals a continued rise in staff access to counselling and occupational health referrals’.

It is also reported that ‘responding to student mental health problems now appears to be an inevitable [though ambiguous] part of the role of an academic’, given their frontline, student-facing responsibilities. This has been found to negatively impact on the wellbeing of academics and requires universities to respond with clarity around role and boundary definition in this regard.  

‘Mental health and wellbeing’ in Australian higher education

Orygen defines ‘mental health and wellbeing’ as encompassing ‘the continuum of mental health states… Mental health includes both the presence and absence of mental ill-health, though it is more commonly associated with the presence of mental illness. Mental wellbeing is generally thought of as positive mental health’.

The Higher Education Standards Framework 2021 (HESF), against which all HE providers are regulated, specifically requires that adequate support for student mental health and wellbeing be provided (HESF Wellbeing and Safety: Standard 2.3.3). Also, the provider’s governing body must ‘develop and maintain an institutional environment in which …the wellbeing of students and staff is fostered’ (HESF Corporate Governance: Standard 6.1.4, emphasis added). The extent of regulatory oversight of these specific matters is unclear, though TEQSA has identified ‘wellbeing and safety of students’ (with no specific inclusion of staff) as one of its ‘compliance priorities for 2022’.  

In 2017, the Higher Education Standards Panel (HESP) recommended that ‘every institution should have an institution-wide mental health strategy and implementation plan’ (Recommendation 8). In 2020, the Productivity Commission’s Mental Health Inquiry Report recommended that the ‘accountability of tertiary education providers should be strengthened with expanded mental health support to their students, including international students’ (Recommendation 6). Like the HESP, the Productivity Commission recommended that all education providers should develop a student mental health and wellbeing strategy as a requirement of registration, urging also that data be collected nationally on support services’ use and that both vocational education and HE regulators monitor and collect evidence of interventions for ongoing improvement.

In 2020, with government funding provided in response to the 2017 HESP Report, Orygen produced the Australian University Mental Health Framework. It is unclear how many HE providers have adopted the Orygen framework as many had already developed their own response between 2017-2020, a number of which focus to a greater extent that Orygen’s on staff wellbeing. In 2022, there still appears to be no collection of national data as recommended by the Productivity Commission. 

What would ‘good’ look like for sector-wide HE mental wellbeing?

In the face of COVID-19’s exacerbation of existing mental health concerns, we need to up our game as a sector on how we support our student and staff wellbeing. It is fortunate that we are able to draw on some excellent international research and resources in this regard. In particular, the UK student mental health charity, Student Minds, led an 18 month, sector-wide consultation process with thousands of students and staff to produce The University Mental Health Charter (2019) which covers both students and staff and directs specific attention to learning, teaching and assessment. 

This work is complemented by Universities UK’s development of a strategic framework launched in 2017 and updated over COVID – Stepchange: mentally healthy universities – for a whole-of-institution, whole-of-sector approach that positions mental health as fundamental to HE’s core mission and foundational to university life for its students and staff. UUK has also developed an open-access self-assessment tool that maps onto the Charter. Completing the UK package of initiatives, The Wellbeing Thesis, hosted by Student Minds, provides resources to support and improve the mental health of postgraduate research students, while the Student Space website, again courtesy of Student Minds, offers an amazing array of tailored support for student cohorts who might face additional challenges with mental health at university. Collectively, this impressive cross-sectoral collaboration and alignment sets the international benchmark for sector-wide best practice. Australia seems some way behind in comparison. Churchill Fellowship scholar Dr Ben Veness has asked whether it is perhaps time for Australian universities to introduce an award or credentialing program for their mental health programs, such as that available in the UK and the US

But wait – there’s more! With the abrupt scaling on online delivery, digital well-being has also become a priority for all students and citizens. Jisc now incorporates ‘digital well-being’ as an element in its digital capability framework, defining it as

the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental, physical, social and emotional health. It is a complex concept that can be viewed from a variety of perspectives and across different contexts and situations.

Jisc has produced resources to support the digital well-being of staff and students: one for practitioners, with guidance and good practice principles, and another for senior leaders that articulates key issues and responsibilities and eight good practice principles for organisations. 

Foreseeable harm + regulatory requirement = HE duty of care 

The mental health and wellbeing of our sector’s students and staff have been on the radar (out from Under the Radar) for many years now. We know that harm is foreseeable. We should listen closely when another blip sounds a warning, as it did again last month via the SES data, and ask ourselves – what are we really doing about the intractable and ‘wicked problem’ of student (and staff) mental health and wellbeing?

Professor Sally Kift is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law (FAAL), and President of the Australian Learning & Teaching Fellows (ALTF). She has held several university leadership positions, including as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at James Cook University. Sally is a national Teaching Award winner, a national Program Award winner and a national Senior Teaching Fellow on the First Year Experience. In 2010, she was appointed an Australian Discipline Scholar in Law. In 2017, Sally received an Australian University Career Achievement Award for her contribution to Australian higher education. Since 2017, she has been working as an independent higher education consultant. @kiftsally 

Why Labor must reconsider the Job-Ready Graduates package now

The Coalition Government used the pandemic-induced shock to introduce legislative measures,  commonly known as the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) package, to  restructure the nation’s higher education (HE) funding arrangements. It had failed to get these reforms up on three separate occasions.

The change was primarily framed as an intervention to ensure that higher education – and its graduates – would be ready to help the nation avert COVID economic shock. JRG would  address the skills shortage, weak university/industry linkages, growth in the school leaver population, and geographical attainment gaps in the sector. 

In a recently published paper (Crisis and Policy Imaginaries: Higher Education Reform during a Pandemic), we critically review the JRG package through the lens of crisis and policy response. 

We ask what was seen as a problem to be fixed by the Morrison Government, what policy responses were introduced, and what was conceived as a desirable future enabled by this policy reform.  

Limited public consultation

To begin with, the change process did not pass through proper public consultation. Policy initiatives may come from top-down (e.g. in the form of political narratives and theories) as well as from bottom-up (e.g. in the form of social movements and public submissions that draw on shared conceptions about what society is and should be).

In the case of the JRG package, the process proceeded with no genuine public consultation: the Government allowed a mere five working days for public submissions. Notably, except for arguments on social work education, none of the critical issues raised by the sector was considered in the final bill. 

Crisis opportunism

Before 2020, the Coalition Government tried and failed at restructuring the HE funding on three occasions.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the sector hard, the Government seized the moment to make its fourth attempt at reform. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of Australian HE. Many people were also distracted by the health crisis. The situation presented an opportunity to impose unpopular reforms. The reformers were keen not to waste a crisis.

The policy selling point was that the health crisis (COVID-19) coupled with fast-paced technological changes in the workplace pose a risk to national economic productivity and competitiveness. The policy purported to provide a solution. 

In essence, the JRG package signifies what Boin and colleagues refer to as ‘crisis exploitation’. The Government framed the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated fear of an economic downturn as a crisis to sell old policy packages and imaginaries. 

As Fassin notes, in a time of crisis, a policy narrative has elements of both temporality (triggering a sense of urgency) and affectivity (triggering anxiety). Crisis narratives make drastic policy changes possible by creating a shared perception of threats or opportunities. We find that crisis opportunism was cynically exploited by the former government to prosecute an old policy agenda. 

Recycled Imaginaries

Imaginaries represent shared visions of desirable futures. When it generates new imaginaries, a crisis can be transformative. Sargeant speaks of crisis as ’a moment of discontinuity’ that requires ‘an act of imagination large enough to envisage a future different from the continuities mandated by the past, and powerful enough to generate a strategy sufficient to chart a path towards this future’ (emphasis added).

In this vein, the JRG reform relies on recycled imaginaries and a tired lexicon. The JRG agenda was essentially set years before the COVID-19 crisis, and the desirable futures outlined in the policy are largely a rehearsal of old political arguments for increased efficiency, productivity, and accountability.

The Morrison Government used the pandemic as an opportunity to (re)articulate its pre-existing neoliberal policy imperatives of privatising and economising HE. Public spending on HE is linked to the need for maximising economic returns. JRG envisages HE as a subset of the economy:  universities should support the nation’s economic goals of productivity and competitiveness by producing more graduates in selected ‘fields of economic productivity’.

In essence, the rupture caused by the pandemic was both a crisis seized opportunistically and an opportunity lost by the Australian Government for visionary reform. In justifying the timeliness of the reform, rather than constructing new imaginaries, the Government reactivated old neoliberal visions of society and the economy. 

Issue omission

In a policy process, the framing of issues matters. As Edwards notes, ‘It is only once a policy issue is accepted as a problem that people can ask, “What can we do about it?”’

In this respect, the JRG package can be defined by the issue it omits from consideration.  For instance, while the reform advocates for innovation, productivity, and competitiveness, issues of research and research training receive no attention. The urgency of decarbonising the economy and the role that universities might play in this was ignored in the reform. No substantive reference is made to the perils of climate change, its impact on employment, public health, agriculture, water and energy, the environment, and all areas of social and economic activity.

Further, through price signalling, the reform privileges STEM fields and unfairly undervalues the importance of humanities and social sciences. The economy is seen as entirely constitutive of the nation, allowing little space for culture, society, or genuine political debate. The focus on teaching, health sciences and STEM fields is justifiable. The issue is not with expecting universities to be responsive and adaptive to the nation’s needs and priorities. Instead, an excessive emphasis on technical training risks the emergence of generations with little or no regard for democracy, social cohesion, and environmental justice. As Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, argues, universities play a critical role in fostering democracy by way of supporting ‘social mobility, citizenship education, the stewardship of facts, and the cultivation of pluralistic, diverse communities’. 

Technology calls for adaptive humans and effective adoption of technology requires expertise from social sciences as well as STEM fields. Technological changes indeed raise the skill requirements of jobs, but human capital (the educational attainment of the workforce) is a narrow parameter of progress. A cohesive, prosperous, and free society is much greater than the economic activities underpinning it. 

The JRG package also frames equity issues reductively. The complex and nuanced equity categories articulated in previous policies are reduced to a crude city/rural divide. 

Workforce nativism

Elements of the reform are also nativist in orientation. The policy discourse around the legislation rehearses a range of nativist tropes about Australian universities for Australian students and Australian jobs for Australian graduates.  This obscures the vital roles played by international students and immigration in Australian economic and social development over our history. The nativist vision seeks to return to a period in which the HE sector was not dependent on the revenue generated by international students’ fees without providing the funding which universities turned to international tuition fees to replace.

This nativism echoes the populist anti-globalisation sentiment we are witnessing globally. Elements of nativist imaginary also evoke an earlier exclusionary, racist, and xenophobic period of Australian history, including the White Australia regime that persisted for much of the 20th century.

The Job-ready Graduates Discussion Paper stressed: “A strong economic recovery will depend on knowledge-intensive jobs held by Australians who are highly skilled, creative and flexible.” However, this nativist rhetoric failed to acknowledge Australia’s historical dependence on immigration to compensate for a skills deficit, especially in STEM fields. This might not come as a surprise given the anti-immigration agenda and populist inclination of the ruling Coalition. 

In closing

A moment of a significant rupture may also be  a moment of bold measures. It challenges the legitimacy of the status quo and puts pressure on the ruling elite to devise coping strategies. A crisis also demands new imaginaries–new shared visions of the desirable futures. Taylor identifies two pathways of imaginary formation: new theories that inspire new practices or reinterpretation of existing practices that lead to a new vision of the future. During a crisis, as our analysis shows, those in power may also choose to enact pre-existing imaginaries, responding to new challenges with old answers. 

In our view, the JRG package was a cynical exercise at several levels, most obviously in its seizing of the moment of the pandemic to prosecute a change that it has been pursuing since at least 2014. In emphasising market-based competition, personal choice, and human capital, the policy package overlooked the importance of such inclusive goals as civic cooperation, shared commitment, and human capability

From here to where? It appears that another round of HE reform is on the horizon. The new Federal Government has an opportunity to reimagine the future and purpose of Australian HE. We urge boldness. Australia’s world class HE sector stands ready to engage creatively and constructively with government, the community, and current and future students. Australian universities are well-positioned to  contribute to a bold change agenda: one which tackles the skills gap and the host of other actions needed for Australia to continue to thrive as a democracy which acts in the interests of its citizens and the planet.  To that end, extensive sector-wide consultation is critical. 


Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.

Denise Cuthbert is the Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research Training and Development at RMIT and has published extensively on higher education policy and practice.

      Denise Cuthbert, RMIT University

Broken but alive – COVID’s gender impacts in Australian universities now

In February 2020 we submitted an ARC Discovery application entitled Understanding and Addressing Everyday Sexisms in Australian Universities. Thinking that we would have zero chance of getting an ARC with the word ‘sexisms’ in the title (spoiler alert – we did get it!), we planned to do a pilot study that year that would trial a number of our proposed survey items and follow up interview content. While we were writing up the ARC application in January 2020, one of the team was working in Hong Kong as a guest lecturer at a local university. There were rumours flying around about a ‘strange flu’ that had come out of Wuhan city, Hubei province in mainland China…

By March of that year we had, to use popular vice-chancellorian parlance, ‘pivoted’ and were living in various stages of lockdown in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. We worked remotely, some of us with children at home, as we tried to grapple with strange new realities and the terrible knowledge that this strange flu, now known as COVID-19, could kill us. As the months wore on, we noticed that gender-based inequalities at our workplaces had not pivoted, and given our focus on gender and Higher Education in Australia, we decided to investigate the impact of COVID-19 working conditions in this space. We brought Jo Pollitt into the pilot who, at the time, was working as a postdoc at ECU. The study sought to understand the ways in which everyday sexisms were playing out for academic workers in universities across Australia and the impact that the pandemic was having on the pre-existing gender inequalities in Australian Higher Education. Whilst not shocking or surprising, our findings were bleak.

“Both my husband and I worked from home for the 10 weeks our children homeschooled. He did not do a single day.” From The #FEAS Report 2021: a satirical news report based upon this research. feat. Mindy Blaise, Emily Gray and Jo Pollitt

That the effects of the pandemic were/are not evenly distributed is, by now, well documented and research shows us that women globally are more likely to be precariously employed and/or engaged in ‘frontline work’, unpaid care work and volunteer community work. The global recession that COVID precipitated meant that women-dominated employment sectors such as retail and hospitality businesses have been adversely affected by social distancing and stay at home directions. As British feminist scholar Elaine Swan articulates, the impacts of COVID-19 on paid work and domestic labour were racialised and classed as well as gendered, and “that it became visible that women, especially women of colour in paid and domestic carework and key worker roles were keeping the system running”.  

Within higher education, social inequalities were similarly amplified. Research so far shows us that the domestic division of labour and stresses upon women’s time precipitated by increased domestic responsibilities mirrored that of the general population. Alarmingly, the lack of women scientists involved in COVID-related medical research means that there may be gendered effects of the virus itself that have not been attended to. This early research also illustrates a significant decrease in journal article submissions from women during the pandemic.

Our survey was taken by almost 200 participants, and while our convenience sample was not representative, it nonetheless provided a ‘snapshot’ of the experiences of academics for whom our survey focus was most relatable: those experiencing sexism and gender-based inequalities during the early stages of the pandemic. 

One of the things that we noticed was how women-identifying participants spoke about how their perceptions of the pandemic’s impact upon their working lives were not shared by their (cis)male colleagues.  Participants spoke of being in meetings where (cis)male members of staff would talk about what a ‘great year’ 2020 had been for them, how their research productivity had gone up. They got books out and were able to use time previously earmarked for commuting to write for publication. Participants who shared this experience talked about how no space was made for their conflicting experiences of the pandemic – for them to encourage their senior/leadership colleagues, as one participant articulated, to “look at the literal wreckage around (them)” and take action. The masculinist orientation of the contemporary neoliberal university was amplified by the pandemic, and those who haven’t historically been welcomed or belonged found out that, at the worst of times, they were left to clean up the mess. Our research showed that the university sector’s, ‘business as usual’ approach during the pandemic manifested as a refusal to allow academics pause, to sit with our fears, our losses, our grief and to attend to the needs of our families and communities.

Perhaps one of the starkest findings was the impact that messaging from university management had upon participants. Many spoke of a weird juxtaposition between ‘business as usual’ and ‘we’re all in it together’, which were both popular slogans that were used simultaneously by VC’s and upper management at universities. Several participants spoke of the psychological impacts that this had, including one participant who had previously been in a violent domestic partnership. This participant spoke of being triggered because the mixed messaging was tantamount to gaslighting – a coercive control tactic deployed by abusers in order to make another party feel insecure, belittled and ultimately insane. Within higher education, such gaslighting went along the lines of, as one participant phrased it: “Two days to pivot online, it’s business as usual. We care about you, but your student evaluation scores are low. We’re in this together – where are your three research outputs?”. Many participants also spoke of a disconnect between the lived realities of regular academic workers and university executives, who, in the early stages of the pandemic, were telling us all that ‘we’re in this together’ to a Zoom backdrop of expensive (often Aboriginal) artwork or Danish mid-century furniture. This was hard to swallow for many, especially precariously employed academic workers, one of whom we interviewed who had half of an IKEA kitchen table in their share-house as a workspace during periods of lockdown. 

Quantitative data showed that feelings of dread and insecurity about the future even characterised the experiences of ‘safe’ academic workers in ongoing positions. This was especially the case where universities had ‘voluntary’ redundancy programmes or were encouraging staff to ‘gift’ time and/or research income in order to relieve some of the financial burdens upon schools and institutions. Because the domestic division of labour continued to be mirrored at work, many women-identifying and minority academics found themselves suddenly feeling precarious because they had been so busy attending to the needs of students and/or colleagues, they had not had time for research-related work, which often requires prolonged periods of uninterrupted focus.  This was near-impossible for academic parents/carers and those providing pastoral care for students, including cohorts of international students stranded far from family support. 

As the pandemic continues, we are left wondering if our institutions see the literal wreckage around them, and more importantly, what they are doing about it. The gendered, racialised and classed impacts of the pandemic upon universities is likely to continue for years and will be reflected in lowered numbers of research outputs and failed promotion applications. COVID-19 needs to be understood as a career interruption for many, and a traumatic experience for all. Universities have to acknowledge this, to give us time to stop and reflect on the past 2 ½ years, to let us grieve for the time we lost, the fear that has become part of the lives of many, the births we missed, the funerals we couldn’t attend. That the pandemic amplified pre-existing inequalities so spectacularly means that the Higher Education sector writ large needs to stop and reflect, to make changes to masculinist neoliberal measurement techniques that punish those for whom universities were not made: women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities. These are the people who kept the system running in crisis, who continue to navigate the wreckage, who, in the words of an Aboriginal woman participant, are ‘broken but alive’. 

‘I’m broken but I’m alive’: gender, COVID-19 and higher education in Australia was published in Higher Education Research & Development.

From left to right: Emily Gray is a senior lecturer in education studies at RMIT’s School of Education. Her interests within both research and teaching are interdisciplinary and include sociology, cultural studies and education. She is particularly interested in questions of gender and sexuality and with how understandings these identity categories are lived by individuals and experienced within social institutions.  Jacqueline Ullman is an associate professor of Adolescent Development, Behaviour and Wellbeing at Western Sydney University, where she teaches in the areas of educational psychology, sociology of education, research design and research methods for preservice secondary teachers and educators looking to pursue continued education. Her primary research focus is in the area of diversity of genders and sexualities and associated inclusive educational practices. Mindy Blaise is a vice chancellor’s professorial research fellow at Edith Cowan University. She is leading an interdisciplinary project on children’s common world relations with place, materiality, and the more-than-human. Her research interests include creating and practising experimental and innovative pedagogies for the Anthropocene; interdisciplinarity; postdevelopmentalism; queer theory; feminism; post empiricism; multi-species ethnography. Jo Pollitt is a post doctoral research fellow at the School of Education, Edith Cowan University. As an interdisciplinary artist and researcher Jo’s work is grounded in a twenty-year practice of improvisation and her work in dance, dramaturgy and writing has been presented both locally and internationally. Her research applies choreographic thinking, expanded embodiment, experimental writing, and creative response in thinking with more-than-human worlds to explore children’s relations with common worlds.

Why we must take the pulse of education research in Australia now

Australian education research is at a key turning point in a pandemic world where the dramatic effects of climate change demand our urgent attention. This blog piece explores the current challenges facing Australian Education research and the contemporary opportunities to create a future radical agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research. This piece has been adapted from the Community of Associate Deans of Education Research (cADRE) address* that I presented on 29 June at the recent AARE/cADRE Education Research Leaders’ Summit hosted by Professor Anna Sullivan on Kaurna Land at the University of South Australia. 

In Australia, we are in a post-election phase. We will have a new Labor government and a new Minister of Education, Jason Clare. We also have a number of other key federal portfolios that will particularly impact upon our sector including Linda Burney, Minister of Indigenous Australians; Ed Husic, Minister of Industry and Science and Anne Aly, Minister of Early Childhood Education and Youth. Australia has voted for change after a long period of Coalition government. 

Education research encompasses a rich transdisciplinary field including all education sectors such as home, early childhood, compulsory school years, senior secondary, higher education, vocational education, professional education, community, transitional and adult learning as well as initial and ongoing teacher education. Our field faces a series of external wicked problems, particularly demoralisation and burnout because of university job losses at a time, as Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins wrote earlier this year, when many universities report large profits. We face a severe lack of grant funding for education research with a significant decline in ARC funding. There is a pressing need to improve the national profile of educational research at a time of extreme change and cutbacks and a significant restriction of opportunities for HDR, early and mid-career academics to build research momentum because of excessive workloads and unrealistic performance goals. We witness the increasing casualization of higher education and more colleagues moving to teaching-focused positions. Science-based metrics are used to inaccurately measure education research outcomes and education researchers experience shrinking time for research and the narrowing of the purposes of universities to vocational skill development (Brennan et al., 2020 AARE Working Party report).

We have seen the previous Australian government increasingly outsourcing education research to organisations and groups outside of universities such as external organisations like AERO and private consultancies, NFPs, philanthropies and corporations. The previous Coalition government’s Australia’s Economic Accelerator (AEA) initiative committed significant funding to the commercialisation of Australian research as part of a package designed to improve commercialisation in Australia’s 6 research priorities which are all in areas of manufacturing. As Professor Tom Lowrie indicated in the recent cADRE/ACDE webinar, this funding initiative will not assist education. However, other funding possibilities include incubator and start-up hubs, philanthropic support, angel investors may be interested in funding our research. The previous government has also introduced funding for industry PhDs and fellowships. These priorities are likely to continue under the new Labor Government. It is, as Emeritus Professor Marie Brennan argued in the cADRE/ACDE webinar, ‘a dangerous time’ for education research in Australia.

There are also a number of key internal challenges also facing Australian education research. Firstly, we need to take a more collegial approach to peer reviewing for ARC grants, ERA, and other competitive research activities. This is an issue facing not only education but HASS as a whole. We also need to improve collaboration between universities and resist the pressure to endlessly compete for very scarce resources. There is a need to think creatively about succession planning in our field given the dramatic changes we are witnessing in the education research workforce with the retirement or retrenchment of many senior researchers; the lack of academic positions available to replace these experienced colleagues; the challenges many Senior Lecturers and Associate Professors face in gaining promotion given the dominance of science metrics to measure academic success in all fields and the difficulties early and mid-career education researchers are experiencing in building and sustaining research momentum. Professor Stephen Billett argued in the cADRE/ACDE webinar that this amounts to ‘a withering of the academic workforce’. Across Australia, Associate Deans of Research in Education report strong cultures of teaching in the field of Education which detract from a focus on research. Deans of Education are often focused on the budget-generating, politicised and rapidly shifting field of Initial Teacher Education to the detriment of other domains of Education research. 

cADRE would like to argue for a radical agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research that informs educational policy and practice. This would challenge the empty rhetoric of ‘excellence’ that we hear so much about in universities. Back in 1996, US scholar Bill Readings was one of the first people to query the ways in which the discourse of ‘excellence’ was replacing the development of culture as the key driving force in universities. While excellence has a convenient ring to it for university managers and governments, we believe we should be seeking transformational or disruptive Education research that has the power to make a real difference to the lives of Australian people of all ages. 

Inclusive and compassionate education research would take a strengths-based approach to the education of all Australians, especially the education of First Nations, migrant, refugee, culturally diverse peoples, people who are differently abled, and all other sections of Australian society. An inclusive and compassionate education research agenda would broaden the scope education research ‘beyond the school/university fence’ to include public, adult, parental, environmental, civil and community education as Professor Stephen Billett argued in our webinar. It would advocate for the commitment of research funding and other resources to foster education research. It would engage in active and genuine partnerships with all of the important education stakeholders, particularly teachers, students, families, communities, Elders, organisations and citizens, to generate grass roots education research agenda setting using the scalable methodologies used in the NSW Deans grass roots education research agenda setting project, including artists who document and sketch the ideas put forward in world café style dialogues, as Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie Knowles outlined in the cADRE/AARE webinar. It would engage in respectful education research with, for and by these communities and citizens. It would provide for a dedicated and respectful focus in Education research on Indigenous knowledge in all domains of education including climate science. Inclusive and compassionate education research would be based on a relational, post-feminist ethics of care approach. 

There is also an important need for the federal Labor government to significantly broaden the national research priorities. There were significant calls at the AIATSIS Summit held on Kabi Kabi Country on the Sunshine Coast from 30 May to 3 June for the national priorities to include Indigenous issues. HASS fields also need to be reinstated as a matter of national research priority given the contribution HASS fields make to research innovation, creativity, transformation and inclusion. We need to lobby the Federal Minister for national targeted research funding for Education that goes beyond the narrow instrumentalist focus of AERO. 

We also need to shift the focus on the exchange value of education research or education research as a commodity on sale to the knowledge economy to Education research’s use value as Emeritus Professor Marie Brennan argued in our cADRE/ACDE webinar. This would involve engaging in research translation, where we educate the public about the value of the research we produce so that our research becomes publicly discussible for the community and for practitioners as well as governments, bureaucrats and funders. These strategies would consolidate our evidence about the Impact and Engagement value of our field in preparation for the ERA Impact and Engagement exercise in 2024.

AARE and ACDE are currently developing a coherent action plan for proactive strategies to enhance the national profile of inclusive and compassionate education research in Australia well into the future. Watch this space!

While I wrote this address, I would like to acknowledge that it was collaboratively workshopped with members of the cADRE Network Steering Group and built upon the recommendations developed at the cADRE/ ACDE webinar Reimagining education research in a post-election world that was held on 27 May (for video recording see https://www.acde.edu.au/networks-and-partnerships/cadre/ ).

Professor Catherine Manathunga, University of the Sunshine Coast; Chair of Community of Associate Deans of Education Research (cADRE – a network of the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) 

Academics, we need useful dialogues not monologues

(Illustration by Oslo Davis Copyright Oslo Davis 2022. Used with permission. www.osldavis.com)

Some things in academia become normalised as meme-worthy ‘Shit Academics Say. Sure, senior academics evoking the ‘more of a comment than a question’ post-conference presentation is not the most pressing of issues in academia.

But it’s a behaviour that we, two early career researchers, picked up on straight away at our first in-person academic conference, HERDSA. These observations aren’t unique to this conference (editor’s note: totally!), but it being our first in-person conference, we found it apt to discuss as we found these non-question monologues to be ill-timed and even problematic. In raising the issue, we would like to productively discuss not only what we noticed but how we believe conference organisers, session chairs and audience members can improve the experience for presenters and attendees.  

As newbies to the in-person conference, we looked forward to the opportunity to engaging with top researchers in our field about their findings. In many ways, HERDSA 2022 met these expectations.

 Unfortunately, with limited time for questions, we may not have always been able to both form our question and get the attention of the mic-holder before the less-of-a-question-more-of-a-comment attendee. At the end of nearly every presentation, we noted there was at least one audience member who stole the floor, eating away at the limited Q&A time, to offer their opinion or make a lengthy comment.  

In one session, after a tremendous keynote speech delivered by Professor Michelle Trudgett, around her research with supporting Indigenous Early Career Researchers, the very first comment made was that Aboriginal leadership in universities should ensure non-Indigenous people are aware of issues facing Indigenous staff and students. In our observation, this comment seemed odd given that the keynote had just spoken at length about the additional workload that Aboriginal leaders are expected to cover at universities. This is one example of where an audience member diverted the discussion around what was being presented, to focus the discussion on something unrelated to the presentation (and engaging in whataboutism). An audience member then commented on the microaggression implicit in the man’s comment i.e., that of requesting Aboriginal leaders to take the additional load of educating non-Indigenous colleagues when they had just been presented data suggesting that Aboriginal leaders are overworked. This exchange stirred a robust discussion within the room, and eventually allowed others to actively draw on the points addressed in the keynote. Although unimpressed with the initial “question” raised, I (Tanoa) enjoyed observing the room participation and the conversational exchanges that did address points relating to the keynote; the latter, to me (Tanoa), was a demonstration of what engaging academic conversations should be. Although we use this example, we witnessed similar exchanges multiple times across the 3-day conference.  

We pose a couple of speculations as to why an audience member may use the Q&A in an unproductive way; we believe some are unintended, while others are less benign: 

  •   Unsure how to succinctly frame the question

When a presentation has got our brains buzzing with thoughts and ideas, it can be difficult to make clear connections and articulate them. As one academic pointed out, what often arises is a comment with many entangled parts, not a straightforward question. That resonates with us, and what we found helpful was to keep a notebook, take notes and save the reflection or half-formed question for discussion after the presentation where we could discuss in a more apt setting, (in-person during tea or via email or by requesting a Zoom catch-up). HERDSA provided great resources, such as an events app, which allowed attendees to be able to connect with presenters, should there be any follow up questions or comments.

  • Using the Q&A for validation

As one academic expressed, it could be that the attendee does know how to frame their question, they just don’t want to ask one. Instead, they’re essentially wanting the presenter to agree with them.

  •  Using the Q&A for one’s own gain

Not all questions are good questions, and some audience members may disguise a question to signpost to their own research or expertise in the matter.

  • Using the Q&A as a microaggression

A microaggression, in this context, is a verbal indignity – often flying under the radar due to its cunning context. A microaggression is not the same as a respectful debate; although, the post-presentation Q&A may also not be an appropriate time to engage in a one-on-one debate. An alternative might be to take it to academic twitter!

By and large, we noticed non-question “questions” were posed to female-presenting presenters by male-presenting audience members. Our observations are in alignment with research that concluded that women ask fewer and shorter questions than men. Additionally, it has been found that senior academics ask more questions than junior academics.

We witnessed many thought-provoking presentations at HERDSA, and we both engaged with and listened in on many stirring conversations; we believe that conference organisers and/or session chairs can and should make space for discussion to flow. This is made possible with conference organisers and chairs proactively communicating with attendees around ‘housekeeping’. For example, it could be clearly stated if there will or will not be time for comments and reflections. In one session in particular, the session chair, Dr. Wade Kelly, set a (paraphrased) precedent that questions should be questions and advised that an ideal question is 10 words or less.

Further, conference organisers can ensure that attendees can be/feel heard by ensuring a range of formats. The traditional, one-way style of presentation leaves little opportunity, during the session, for audience members to engage with each other and minimal time for questions. HERDSA offered alternatives like non-hierarchical fishbowl or roundtable discussions in which attendees could better engage with each other – and the facilitator!

Audience members are also accountable for how they navigate and engage in productive conversations. We like the helpful Conference Monkey guide written by Georgina Torbet and would like to add some additional considerations to asking a question after an academic presentation:

1.       Firstly, (which is our whole point), is this actually a question, or are you showing off? Consider if you already know the answer.

2.       Will the response to this question directly impact what you do? (i.e., is your question authentic; is it informing practice/research?)

3.       Has somebody else already asked this question? Or could a response that was previously given also apply to your question?

No? Great!

If you have made it this far, then your question is probably valid and engaging, so we propose the following when asking your questions:

  • Write down your question (or concepts)
  • Be mindful of time and ask only one question (more if time permits)
  • If necessary, do a quick introduction
  • Re-consider if your question requires a backstory (it probably doesn’t)
  •  It’s okay to briefly thank the presenter

4.       Be mindful of the space you are in and the space you are “allowed” to occupy.

The keynote speaker has been invited into the space because the conference organisers/executive team determined that their research is valuable to the academic audiences that have chosen to attend. Give presenters the respect they deserve and don’t centre yourself.

Finally, it’s totally fine to have a critical question. However, question sessions aren’t intended to be a ‘gotcha’ moment; present criticism constructively.

Ameena Payne is a PhD student at Deakin’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE). Ameena is a recipient of her alma mater’s Outstanding Young Alumna Award (2022) and several teaching excellence commendations. She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) and the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA).

Ashah Tanoa, a Pinjareb/Whadjuk Noongar woman from Perth, Western Australia, is an Associate Lecturer at Murdoch University. Ashah is studying a Master of Education by Research, looking at Indigenous student retention rates and what influences a student’s decision to leave within their first year at university. She was the 2021 recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s award for Excellence in Enhancing Learning. In 2022, Ashah was accepted to present at the HERDSA conference in Melbourne, on an evaluation of an innovative unit that teaches the hidden curriculum to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

O’Shea: All I want for higher education now and tomorrow

Fresh from delivering a widely-applauded keynote at this year’s HERDSA conference, Fragility or tenacity? Equity and participation in the pandemic university (read it, it’s fantastic), Professor Sarah O’Shea of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University shares her hopes and visions for the sector’s future.

My first face-to-face conference in over two years has given me pause to consider the many changes and challenges the university sector has encountered in the last years. The onset of the pandemic both exacerbated existing issues within the sector as well as revealing a whole gamut of new complexities related to funding sources, precarity of employment and systemic injustices for equity-bearing students. 

We are not yet post-pandemic and there are many things  the onset of the health crisis has revealed. It showed us COVID was never simply a health issue but required a much broader social response. 

Indeed, key to how we emerge from the pandemic will be our education systems, particularly the higher education setting. With this in mind I offer a personal wish list of changes needed in the system, to better serve the students and staff therein:

  • Linked to the previous point is the need to revisit the removal of Commonwealth financial support for those students who do not manage to maintain ‘an overall pass rate of 50 per cent’ across their studies (DESE, 2021). We know that many students from equity backgrounds may initially fail some subjects as they navigate the university system but still go on to succeed academically. Pedagogically, failing can often result in key points of learning and students should never be penalised financially as a result.
  • Recent research has indicated the high cost of ‘investment’ universities make to support and retain the equity student cohort. These costs are often borne by those institutions located in regional areas or who have committed to a mission to open up educational pathways for disadvantaged communities. Such work is laudable and deserves to be funded in ways that recognise the variable nature of investment required in different communities and locations.
  • The precarity of academic employment has always existed but its visibility and impact has become more visible since the onset of COVID-19. I hazard a guess that most of the readers would know of colleagues who have either not had a contract renewed or have been ‘restructured’ out of the organisation. A recent report has highlighted how tertiary education topped national job losses (39%) across Australia, but again, if Australia is to navigate its way out of the current health situation then securing and rewarding university staff is a requisite need moving forward.
  • Finally and fundamentally the current ‘business model’ of the university sector needs to be challenged and revised. The level of public investment in the sector has declined to just 52% of university revenue, which has led to an untenable funding model characterised by an over-reliance on international student fees derived largely from two markets (China and India), a situation identified as problematic even by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) 

COVID has irrevocably disrupted the existing and accepted business model of higher education, but embracing this disruption will ultimately assist in reimagining this system. Identifying and addressing the enduring and emerging pressure points in the system, provides an opportunity to strengthen the resilience of Australian education systems. We know developing robust and inclusive higher education environments will be key to adapting to new and unforeseen challenges in the future. This is challenging work but  confronting the deficiencies of the current system will ultimately enable us to ‘build back better’.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

How to fix education: cut tests, defund private schools

In the final part in our series of what the next government should do to save Australian education, Jill Blackmore, Amanda Keddie and Katrina MacDonald ask: What is the problem of schooling in Australia and how can we fix it?

Education has been politicised over the last three decades, yet it has not been a key feature of the current election campaign. To be sure, we have heard public statements from Federal Education Minister (acting) Stuart Robert about ‘dud’ teachers in our public education system as well as his approval of increasing student demand for private sector schooling. Amid both parties’ support for parental choice in education and concerns about Australia’s under-performance on standardised international and national tests such as PISA and NAPLAN, the focus in this election campaign has largely been on how teacher quality might be improved through attracting and retaining better teachers. While quality teaching is important, this focus misrecognises the ‘problems’ of Australian education in a number of ways.

First, the yardstick of a successful education cannot be measured by student performance on standardised tests. These are highly narrow indicators of school success but continue to be put forth as evidence that our teachers and schools are effective/ineffective. For decades, education policy and practice has mandated the multiple purposes of education (academic and social). It is more important than ever before as we witness the social and economic costs of rising global and local conflict and the continued degradation of our environment that schools develop students’ critical, social and relational capacities as future active citizens to change a world on the brink of destruction. Although, it is promising to see the inclusion of sexual consent education in the Australian Curriculum as well as efforts to better recognise and integrate Indigenous perspectives and learning, it seems that politicians remain focused on narrow academic outcomes as the indicator of school success. Decades of research has told us that the testing culture in schools continues to degrade quality teaching and learning. Standardised testing of literacy, numeracy and science is not the problem. The problem is the way it has been weaponised to blame schools, teachers and students within a marketized and competitive education systems where under-performance on these tests is equated with bad teachers and schools (Smyth, 2011). How might this be different? Some have suggested that testing a randomised sample of schools to represent the diversity of schools in Australia might be a good way of gauging school performance on these markers.  Many countries reject standardised assessment, and have adopted this practice, such as New Zealand did in 2018.

Second, the emphasis on teacher quality in current political arguments tends to focus on teachers as individuals rather than as part of a feminised and (now) marketised profession that continues to be maligned publicly including by our elected representatives in government (Barnes, 2021). Raising the status of the teaching profession is a laudable goal amongst Labor’s education policy promises. Teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. They are overworked, confronted with increasing violence from students and parents, and they are operating in marketized systems where they must prioritise improvements on the measures that count (i.e., narrow academic outputs) lest their school becomes labelled as failing. In this pressurised environment, teachers are exhausted by increasingly untenable amounts of administration, accountability checklists and external demands (Heffernan, Bright, Kim, Longmuir, & Magyar, 2022). Teaching is therefore no longer attractive to many and even those who become teachers are disenchanted and exit because of the conditions of work and lack of professional autonomy. Both major parties have a commitment to attract high academic performing students into the profession through various programs and incentives. These initiatives may raise the status of teaching to some extent for some schools but they will do little to change the devaluing of the profession as feminised or the marketized system that has de-professionalised teachers.

Third, improving Initial Teacher Education is another policy focus for both major parties. Again, as it is situated within a competitive marketized system, Initial Teacher Education has been damaged as a consequence of JobReady policies. Federal funding to Education faculties has declined at the same time as they are expected to teach more students. This has led to a degrading of teacher education courses. Competitive market and education policy pressures have led to a burgeoning of shorter courses provided by multiple providers and intensified measures of accountability. Teaching is a complex profession that will not be mastered through short university courses. Teacher quality that leads to creating active, informed and critical citizens who can change the world for the better requires degree courses that foster deep, critical and broad learning about this complex job.

Fourth, both parties are silent on the gross funding inequality within and between our education system. In 2020, the total gross income available (including state and federal recurrent funding, equity loadings, fees and charges) per student was $16,020 for public schools, $17,057 for Catholic schools and $22,081 for independent schools (Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority). The reality is that public schools are chronically underfunded according to the minimum Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) (less than 1% of public schools will receive the minimum funding by 2023). In addition, the Catholic Education Office and ‘Independent’ schools have fewer accountability requirements. These schools are, of course, selective in who they accept (on the basis of ability to pay but also other factors such as religion and gender) which segregates children and fortifies inequality. Public schools, on the other hand, are left to support the most disadvantaged students with less resources. 

Fifth, both major parties support the right for parents to shop around and select the ‘best’ school for their children. What politicians don’t divulge is how this practice has been highly damaging for school equality. School choice policies over decades have encouraged competition, stratification and residualisation within and between education sectors assisted by the public availability of standardised testing data (MySchool) where schools are ranked on their performance. This has increased inequality between schools, students, communities, families and teachers – the ‘good’ schools get more students and more funds while ’bad’ schools get less students and less funds. What politicians don’t say is how school choice privileges already privileged parents and students who have the capacity and resources to select schools (including moving house to be close to ‘better’ schools). 

State governments are ostensibly responsible for public schooling in Australia, however federal governments can do a lot to improve education. If political parties are serious in this endeavour, the following (at least) needs to occur:

  • Remove standardised testing of narrow academic performance of all schools to testing of a random representative sample of schools
  • Improve the work conditions of teachers and school principals through greater pay, less intensive workloads, greater access to specialist support, greater time for professional development and planning, and greater security of employment (e.g. reducing casualisation)
  • Stop blaming teachers especially those in the public sector for problems that the system and society have created (schools cannot cure the ills of neoliberal, capitalist societies)
  • Implement the Gonski funding recommendations fully and immediately as they intended. This means equitable and fair redistribution of resources on the basis of need. This will mean recalibrating federal and state funding models to reduce or remove funding to ‘independent’ schools that do not need this funding.

From left to right: Jill Blackmore AM Ph D FASSA is Alfred Deakin Professor in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Australia and Vice-President  of the Australian Association of University Professors.  She researches from a feminist perspective education policy and governance; international and intercultural education; leadership, and organisational change; spatial redesign and innovative pedagogies; and teachers’ and academics’ work. Recent projects have focused on school autonomy reform and international students’ mobility, identity, belonging and connectedness. Her latest publication is Disrupting Leadership in the Entrepreneurial University: Disengagement and Diversity (2022, Bloomsbury). Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. Her research examines the processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in education settings. Amanda’s qualitative research has been based within the Australian, English and American schooling contexts. Follow her on @amandamkeddie. Katrina MacDonald is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Strategic Research Centre in Education, Research for Educational Impact (REDI). Her research and teaching interests are in educational leadership, social justice, spatiality, and the sociology of education through a practice lens (feminist, Bourdieu, practice architectures). Katrina’s qualitative research has focused on principal’s social justice understandings and practices, and the impact of school reform policies on the provision of just public schooling. She tweets at @drfeersumenjin