Still Waiting for the (Education) Revolution

Based on part of Trinity's submission to the Bradley Review of Higher Education.

The Federal Government's intention for Education in Australia has been described as a "revolution". For this to become a reality we have to ask genuinely radical questions, not just seek modestly revised answers to the existing ones. While our universities have great strengths, there are issues not yet being scrutinized carefully enough to ensure a really revolutionary outcome.

Australia’s higher education system is unusual for a relatively low emphasis on student experience beyond the classroom in even the most prestigious or well-resourced institutions. Australian policy and practice have tended not to acknowledge how important such elements as residential life, or cultural, sporting and political activities developed by students themselves, are for educational purposes. Pressure on resources in the sector has continued to inhibit serious challenges to such assumptions.[1] There is however an emerging conversation about issues such as student experience or engagement, which now offers an historic opportunity in conjunction with the government’s stated intention to foster a more internally diverse higher education sector.

The importance of student experience includes broad and traditional goals of universities such as the education of the whole person and/or citizen, and the more pragmatic but important industry requirements which the Review Discussion Paper identifies under the somewhat prosaic title of “generic skills”. Alongside the need for vocational skills and the pursuit of knowledge or love of learning however, we might set the very traditional connection between higher education and citizenship itself.

That connection is made in the Review Discussion Paper but largely in terms of vocational preparation and production of knowledge (1.2). It needs (also) to be made in terms of the education of persons who will contribute to professions, business or the academy, not only through expertise but through embodying and promoting values such as commitment to national and global interests, or social justice or inclusion.

While it is not easy to negotiate the shared values that might characterize Australian society, let alone its higher education sector, consideration of this possibility is important, and the opportunity timely. In practice and policy this means giving institutions the scope and the incentive to articulate their mission with questions of value, and not just vocation, in mind. The envisaged diversity for the sector could become a means for different institutions explicitly to address social inclusion, sustainability, pluralism or other more specific agendas.

An approach to the task of higher education which includes citizenship or values among the tasks and concerns of the sector does involve consideration of the formal curriculum but inevitably transcends it. It demands consideration of abilities and skills that must be developed in community life, in voluntary organizations, in service projects.

Based on international standards of best practice, the formation of citizens and the development of generic skills both require attention to the student experience itself. Students need opportunities to engage with others in projects of common interest, to be challenged through experiences of diversity, to confront problems of real life as well as of theoretical nature, and to develop communication skills. While many of these areas need to be addressed in curriculum, the restriction of consideration to the classroom or its adjunct processes would be ineffective.

In Australian institutions, student unions have been an important focus for activities of this kind outside the lecture theatre. The former government’s abolition of compulsory fees for these organizations was possible because public discourse about higher education erroneously depicted them as optional extras that could to be pursued voluntarily, if and when seen as valuable.

While a fresh approach to student-run activities and organizations would be welcome, this Review should take the opportunity to move beyond the assumption that student activities and the student experience generally lie beyond the core of the university’s activity, or can be adequately addressed solely by student organizations themselves. Rather the student experience should without exception be addressed in university strategic plans, and seen as important for consideration of funding formulae.

Another important venue for student experience or engagement has been in residential colleges and other structured communities such as halls of residence. These have had a mixed history in Australia, and not always given scope to fulfill their potential, but internationally have continued to be important centres for developing the values and skills at issue.

At the best universities around the globe, residence is very often assumed as an educational given, rather than merely a logistical challenge (as in “housing”). The increasing mobility of Australian (and of course international) students provides a strategic opportunity to reiterate the place of residential life and the necessity of governing it in terms that are in keeping with the broader mission of the university, i.e., as an integral aspect of the university educational experience, rather than purely as an incidental need.

[1] I note the remarks of Professor Ian Chubb of ANU on “The role of student housing in the higher education sector” at the recent AACUHO Conference: “if I could get ANU to be a wholly collegiate university tomorrow, I would do it”. And later “…but is it achievable? Well, no it is not”.

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