Thursday, June 15, 2017

Improving retention, completion and success in higher education

The discussion paper "Improving retention, completion and success in higher education" from the Higher Education Standards Panel, was released by the Australian Department of Education and Training, 9 June 2017. This seventy nine page report provides a comprehensive overview of efforts to measure and improve the retention of students in Australian university. It points out that many strategies have had limited success and asked what more can be done.

As the paper points out, Australian university students complete at about the same rate as in comparable countries. The report discusses categories of students less likely to complete, such as those who are part time, distance students from low socio-economic groups (p. 45). In a way this reflects the success of Australian Higher Education policy. Such students would previously have been excluded from higher education. Any policy to improve retention rates should be carefully designed so it does not inadvertently exclude these students (or allow an unscrupulous provider to deliberately do so to improve their statistics).

One change the points to  is "From 1 January 2018 Commonwealth support will be available to students at public universities in approved sub-bachelor courses." (Page 14). As the paper notes, this will provide a better transition to degree programs and for shorter work related qualifications.

However, sub-degrees present challenges for universities which are not used to offering such short, practical programs. Those institutions which offer vocational and educational training (VET), through an associated TAFE or Registered Training Organization (RTO) will have an advantage in staff and procedures to suit these shorter programs.

In discussing teaching quality, the paper notes that enrollments in Graduate Certificates in Teaching (the traditional qualification a university lecturer is expected to have) has been declining (p. 50). The paper suggests this be addressed by individual universities. However, perhaps a more centralized policy is needed. VET staff have a very high rate of completion of the equivalent qualification: a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment. This is because the qualification is required for VET teachers. No similar requirement exists for university lecturers.

I suggest requiring university lecturers to have a teaching qualification at least the same level as VET teachers: AQF level 4 Certificate IV, while retaining the option of a Level 8 Graduate Certificate. Those academics who also teach in the VET sector would be likely to opt for the Certificate IV and those exclusively in the university system the Graduate Certificate. In either case, this education should focus on practical aspects of teaching, with only as much theory as needed to support it. This should be offered on-line, using techniques including an e-portfolio and recognition of prior learning, both for convenience and to provide familiarity with the environment lecturers will be increasingly working in. and with the option of completion through an

Senior university academics should be expected to have completed a more extensive qualification on teaching, supervision and university administration. A Level 6 Advanced Diploma, or Level 9 Masters Degree would be appropriate.

One aspect of the paper which I find troubling, is the lack of appreciation for the change which on-line education has made, and will make, to Australian Higher Education. The assumption seems to be that most university students do, and will continue to, attend lectures on a campus regularly as full-time students. However, like the education provided by universities, this thinking needs to be flipped. University academics are well aware that only about one third of students attend the average lecture and that students have jobs and families. However, most academics have not been trained in how to provide education to this majority of students.

In March I completed a Masters of Education in Distance Education, focused on how to provide a quality education at a research orientated university catering to international students. Some of my colleagues have asked what the trick is to getting students to do the study expected of them. The trick, as I explain it, is to experience being a student so you understand what they are going through and becoming competent in your profession of teaching. It is then very much easier to teach, once you know how to do it and why.

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