Explainer: what is the Office for Learning and Teaching – and why does it matter?

Teaching innovation in our universities may now be at risk. from www.shutterstock.com

The Coalition announced in the budget that it would stop funding the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) – an organisation that that has helped to enhance learning and teaching in universities. This means that from 30 June, the organisation will cease to run, and from July there will be no more grants and fellowships. The decision puts teaching innovation in our universities at risk.

There is no replacement institute, despite the government promising this in last year’s budget.

This is not just a problem for the higher education sector. It will contribute to significant losses to the wider economy that flow from having a highly skilled, professional workforce.

It will also lead to missed opportunities for enhancing the educational experience of students.

What does the OLT do?

  • Provides funding for initiatives that improve the teaching and learning experience;
  • Recognises (by awarding and celebrating) teachers who were exemplars in their fields;
  • Funds fellowships that allow the best teachers to share their knowledge and practices throughout the sector; and
  • Improves the quality of teaching and learning by providing mechanisms for teachers to collaborate and share resources.

The Coalition said that only the teaching awards will remain. These will be funded at a fraction of the current amount.

Why does it matter that the funding has been cut?

In 2015, our higher education sector was the major contributor to almost $20 billion of international student export revenue.

Teaching and learning practices are at the core of higher education. These practices are required to constantly adapt to new global realities. Bodies such as the OLT have helped give Australia its competitive advantage.

Australian higher education is known internationally for its quality learning and teaching. One of the reasons for this is that the OLT and its predecessors have created a culture of collaboration and engagement. The funding was widely distributed and it encouraged collaboration across multiple institutions. This made sure that the benefits of the projects were felt across many institutions.

Quality learning and teaching is a shared concern, and the loss of funding puts shared solutions at risk.

The impact of grants and fellowships

When innovation in higher education is mentioned, most people think of research. Yet it is teaching that is at the core of our universities. In fact, teaching subsidises research. By one estimate, one dollar in five spent on research comes from surpluses from teaching.

Grants and fellowships provide critical information to policymakers and politicians. Here are three examples of how they impact students and lecturers.

1) Toolkit to boost retention rates

Karen Nelson from the University of the Sunshine Coast developed two frameworks that help universities foster student success and retention. At least 14 Australian institutions now use this work to help retain students and improve completion and success rates. Over 400,000 students now benefit from the practices. Examples include maps that help students to locate support. Social media tools increase connections between peers. Student and staff advisers access training to help students in need. And students participate in the design, enactment and evaluation of their programs.

2) Establishing course standards for accounting degrees

Mark Freeman from the University of Sydney consulted over 2,000 people across the sector to establish discipline standards for accounting degrees. Standards set out what students should have learned by the end of their courses. It is important that everyone agrees what these should be. Freeman focused on accounting, where two-thirds of students in our universities are from overseas. The team also found a more efficient way of ensuring that assessment judgements are consistent across different universities. This substantially reduced the time and cost of post-assessment moderation. The standards work is now in use across the sector and it reaches around 47,000 students.

3) Using capstones to build student understanding and confidence

Capstone experiences – that can be in the form of an academic project, assignment or internship – enable students to apply their learning in a real world scenario such as a professional project or an industry placement. Victoria University’s Nicolette Lee used her Australian National Learning and Teaching Fellowship to define and improve capstone experiences. Lee worked with over 200 teachers across Australia to improve and design powerful capstone experiences for students. Students from fashion design to engineering engaged in immersion projects, placements, guided reflections, leadership opportunities and team challenges. The resources now mean that students across disciplines and institutions can achieve stronger employment and satisfaction outcomes.

How will the loss of funding affect learning and teaching in universities?

Now that the OLT is closing and the grants and fellowships are lost, it is not clear how or whether the government will play an active role in enhancing teaching excellence in our institutions.

Teaching excellence is not solely the government’s responsibility, but then OLT funding did not exist to help universities do their job or to address deficiencies.

Through OLT funding, academics enhanced the attractiveness of an Australian education to international students. They ensured that our students are better equipped to improve Australia’s social and economic well being. Without the OLT, Australia’s advantages in those respects are at significant risk.

• The figure 175,000 was replaced with 47,000 to specifically reflect the number of accounting students.

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