Higher Education at the Crossroads

The Australian Council of Professions (ACoP) has responded to the various reviews and papers initiated by the government over recent years and is now submitting comments on the overview paper ‘Higher Education at the Crossroads’.

ACoP Members are the major professional associations and they maintain contact with the professional schools in the universities in the various states. In many cases this contact is maintained by visiting panels of practitioners, in some cases in relation to the accreditation for professional purposes of professional courses and in others to sit on academic advisory panels. Additional contact is established by the presence on university teaching staff of practising professionals as part-time members of staff or as adjunct professors and senior advisers. In addition the presence of academic professionals as members of the professional associations on the courses boards and committees of the professional association further strengthens the lines of contact. The professions therefore have the opportunity to observe the state of professional education which forms a major component of the university system and to form opinions about its condition and in particular about the effect of successive changes to the system made in the fourteen years since the Dawkins Report.

In its various submissions ACoP has drawn upon the experience of many professional associations and many individual professionals to draw attention to the progressive deterioration in the funding of universities.

In its submission to the political parties prior to the last election, ACoP drew attention to the following special needs which it believes are still entirely relevant:

  • Academic salaries must be at a level to attract the best minds and to recognise the importance of teaching and research – recurrent funding must recognise this need.
  • Student to staff ratios must be substantially improved.
  • Teaching equipment and university infrastructure must be renewed and remain relevant to changing standards and changing needs.
  • Proposals for improved research funding must be fully implemented and encouragement of research kept as a vital priority.
  • The loss of talented individuals departing from Australia, (the “brain drain”), must be staunched – not however to prevent essential intellectual interchange taking place between countries in order to keep in touch with new knowledge.
  • While applied research and partnership with industry must be further developed it should not be at the cost of pure research from which creative innovation emerges.
  • Balance must be maintained so that the essential components of a civilised society embodied in the social sciences and humanities are not prejudiced.
  • New and innovative ways of learning must be encouraged, which may challenge conventional systems – especially for the professions.
  • New concepts of knowledge and of knowledge management must be encouraged.

The Australian Council of Professions acknowledges that the situation varies greatly from university to university, within universities from one disciplinary area to another.

Decisions have had to be made in many universities which have given priority in funding either to new buildings or to major new technological and other equipment for one disciplinary area while others languish creating internal tensions.

The shortfall in funding has been acknowledged in some ministerial statements, in the material presented by the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee and by independent observers.

In the seminar conducted by the Australian Council of Professions convened in July 2001, entitled ‘Professional Education in a Changing World’, the then President of the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee, Professor Ian Chubb AM, presented a paper entitled ‘Between Knowledge and Ability – Hopeful Signs for the Future’ in which he made a compelling case for greater resources for universities pointing out the disparity in the support being given to higher education in a number of other countries who are our trading partners by comparison with the support given in this country. It was clear that Australia was falling behind and in danger of losing our international competitiveness and our international standing in education and in research.

The Australian Council of Professions understands that the present paper and the present series of investigations instigated by the Minister are expected to lead to changes which will reverse the trend that has occurred over recent years.

While many other factors have been identified in the paper which may lead to beneficial changes the Australian Council of Professions is convinced that a major change must be in both the priority given to higher education by the government and the amount of money it is prepared to allocate from the public purse.

The earliest support for the development of Australian universities was seen by the government of the time, and indeed by the general community, as an important investment in the future of the country and an investment to enable the youth of the country, through education and the acquisition of knowledge and skills, to contribute to that future. It appears that over recent years public funding contributions to tertiary education have been seen more pragmatically as a cost to be considered in competition with other costs rather than as an essential investment which will yield benefits to contribute to all cost areas.

Governments must have the vision to see beyond immediate political imperatives and accept the absolute necessity of preparing the nation for the complexities and competitive demands of the knowledge based era in which we are now engaged.

While ACoP supports the investigation of alternative funding sources for universities we point out that universities generally have responded to shortfalls in public investment in universities by seeking alternative sources of funds in overseas fee-paying students, in collaborations with commerce and industry and in other innovative ways. While these developments have assisted they have also diverted university resources from their central roles of funding scholarship and research in many of the teaching disciplines.

We do not support any increase in the share of funding of universities paid by students which is already higher than fees paid by students in many other OECD counties. Nor does it support proposals by the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee that higher HECS rating may be paid for some courses since this would introduce equity considerations and prejudice students from lower income families.

We are concerned at the amount of reliance on full fee paying overseas students, to augment university funds, pointing out that there are educational developments in many of the countries from which these students come which could well reduce the flow in the future.

The Australian Council of Professions views with caution the implementation of specialisation which would cause the closing down of certain disciplines in some universities, although accepting that some careful rationalisation may be supportable. The particular geographic dispersion of population centres in this country can justify the retention of courses which may otherwise appear not to be viable. Such courses may well exist with support from and collaboration with local professional communities and fulfil a local need extending beyond immediate educational purposes.

In both teaching and research the Council believes that funding savings can be achieved by greater collaboration between universities. However current competition policies and proposals to increase competitiveness may well prejudice such collaboration.

We endorse the principle of learner centred education stated in the paper. Nevertheless ACoP believes that there is a danger in placing too much emphasis on the concept of teaching rather than learning with the implication that there are those who possess knowledge, the teachers, who then transmit it to those who receive, the students.

Many universities now have procedures for studying and improving teaching practices and also for encouraging and acknowledging excellence in teaching. It is significant that in at least one university the relevant centre is called ‘Centre for Learning and Teaching’, thus giving emphasis to the concept that, at a university it is the learning experience of the student that is most important, in which the individual student engages in a personal quest, developing the capacity for self learning and for critical enquiry. Too much emphasis on the concept of teaching diminishes the true nature of the university experience which is to share the search for knowledge. The best teachers are those who are capable of engaging the enthusiasm of the student for the area of knowledge and of encouraging the student to take part in personal exploration.

It can be said that the majority of teaching in universities is directly for the professions. Modes of teaching vary from profession to profession and in recent years developments have taken place in some professions giving greater emphasis to practical experience in courses, that is learning through doing or ‘situated learning’ as opposed to the traditional discipline knowledge based approach or ‘propositional knowledge’.

The dichotomy between theory and practice, the relationship of one to another and when and how they are taught in universities is a perennial consideration in professional courses. The degree to which the professional associations or individual practitioners can or should be involved in the educational process as well as student involvement in work situations, in which learning is part of work, is a subject for further investigation. It takes place in varying degrees in some professions as clinical experience and sometimes as simulated work experience. There are complex organisational and funding implications in the further application of this concept.

We believe that there is an urgent need for a discussion paper to be developed to study the concept of professional education taking account of societal changes which have taken place and to ensure that the education of professionals will serve Australia well into the first decades of the present century. The paper would examine changes in the concept of professionalism, professional educational modes, professional standards and ethics and the role of professional associations in education.

The Australian Council of Professions would welcome the opportunity to assist in the development of a discussion paper to define a concept of professional education for the twentyfirst century.

In view of the pressures to which universities and their teaching staff have been subjected over recent years it does not appear to be reasonable to expect that there will be further productivity gains unless it is by reforming administrative structures and reporting procedures to ease the present burdens on university staff. Present requirements for regulation by government and for the transmission of information, statistics and complex reports should be reviewed. Simplification of managerial demands and greater autonomy should be sought at all levels. The Council supports a thorough and sympathetic examination of current levels of regulations and reporting consistent with reasonable means of ensuring accountability.

ACoP agrees that there must be in Australia universities which can attain the highest international standards, measured by the quality of research undertaken, by contributions to global knowledge and by the excellence of performance of graduates. Generally centres of research excellence will be in one or a small number of disciplines in a university which can also act as exemplars to raise the general level of attainment in other disciplines. As has been pointed out the existence of such centres demands a sufficient number of high quality researchers to interact and to maintain international contacts and they will need accommodation, facilities and equipment at the most advanced level. That requires the provision of special funding.

We believe that special endeavours should be made both to provide additional public funding for this purpose and to have a national appeal to industry to support such a programme.

We do not believe that there should be a withdrawal of research funds from some universities to provide funding for such centres. ACoP considers that the best teaching is done by those who are seeking knowledge in research and that the best staff would not be attracted to universities which do not engage in research.

There should be an essential link between teaching and research in all disciplines so that the knowledge students gain is vital living knowledge growing out of research and continuous contact with evolving scholarship and not static knowledge.

The Australian Council of Professions would welcome the opportunity to take part in discussions on the Research Paper and to receive and comment upon subsequent supplementary papers. It would also be willing to contribute in whatever way is practicable to the Minister’s Reference Group, which it appears does not have a strong representation from the professions, bearing in mind the particular interest the professions have in the professional courses in universities.

This submission has been prepared for the Australian Council of Professions’ Education Committee; chairman emeritus Professor R N Johnson AC

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