Engaging Students

Based on extracts from the Morpeth Lecture 2008, given at Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle for the Anglican Diocese and the University of Newcastle, April 17 2008

Australian higher education is undergoing what has been described as a “revolution”. Its precise form is so far unknown, but the Federal Government is undertaking a fundamental review whose consequences might be far-reaching.

Not all the challenges the universities face have been fully or publicly recognized. There is a wide recognition that under-resourced campuses and crowded lecture rooms do not always really match the qualities and aspirations of the students and staff who inhabit them. Yet there is a related challenge that goes deeper than facilities, to the heart of the educational process and its aims.

There is an emerging national conversation about issues labelled "student experience" or "engagement". The results of a survey released by the Australian Council for Educational Research just last week make an important contribution to that discourse. The Australasian Survey of Student Engagement examines "what students are actually doing, highlights the most critical aspects of learning and development, provides a ‘learner-centred, whole-of-institution’ perspective, and gives an index of students’ involvement in study".[1]

Principal author of the report was Dr Hamish Coates, a former resident tutor and President of our Senior Common Room at Trinity College. The report, Attracting, Engaging, Retaining, contains some very positive data about how students experience Australian university education. It also suggests that there are areas, such as significant interaction between teachers and students, and enrichment of the educational experience through broadening activities outside the classroom, where measures of Australian students’ engagement with the university experience lags significantly behind their American peers’.

This is a particularly interesting and significant area to reflect on from the Collegiate perspective. Having begun life as a residential College community, Trinity has sought to maintain a sense of community where teachers and students are ultimately colleagues, "members" of the College as our constitution puts it. And since our purpose has always been broader than the provision of curriculum, activities beyond the classroom have always been crucial to the learning experience.

While we should be encouraged by the emergence of a serious discourse in Australia about student experience. it is less encouraging to see it being presented under a title “Attracting, Engaging and Retaining” students, indicating perhaps that many leaders and policy makers do not yet see engagement and experience as the heart of education, but adjunct to it, or even just as a means to maintain enrolments. In fact an educational vision that is unashamedly and primarily focussed on quality of student experience is ultimately more likely to succeed at attracting and retaining, as well as engaging.

Yet this is a challenge for us at Trinity too. There is no doubt that what we are able to offer students in the Collegiate environment is exceptional. Perhaps the challenge we face, together with the University and other Colleges, is how to make this kind of educational experience more widely available, and less the preserve of an exceptional and privileged few.

[1] Attracting, Engaging and Retaining: New Conversations About Learning (Camberwell, Vic: ACER, 2008)