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The year’s nearly ended, but we’re still not sure how to best fund our universities. from

2015, the year that was: Education

2013 was the year of Gonski; 2014 the year of higher education reform; 2015 has been the year of … hmmm … wait, what actually happened this year? Just a lot of chat really, with much debate, but little action on reforming education in Australia.

But after such a tumultuous few years of policies being rushed through with little or no thought, I’ve sensed this has been a welcome relief for many in the sector, providing time to actually pause, think and look to research to see what it is we really want and need from an education system in Australia.

The year started out by continuing the debate about fee deregulation – with Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, among others, voicing support for this move.

Yet after months of lobbying, and an 11th-hour bid at compromise, the then education minister, Christopher Pyne, failed to negotiate the passage of his university fee deregulation reforms through the Senate.

The Group of Eight, who initially supported deregulation, then changed tack, saying if politicians didn’t agree with it, they didn’t either. Instead, they called for yet another review into funding higher education.

In September 2015, Simon Birmingham was made the new minister for education and training. AAP

Despite Pyne’s pledge to fight on, his time as education minister was short-lived. The ousting of Tony Abbott meant we got a new education minister: welcome Simon Birmingham.

In his first speech, Birmingham announced he would put plans to deregulate university fees on hold for at least a year. Any new funding reforms wouldn’t come into effect until 2017 at the earliest.

And that was that. Since then he has proposed a proper consultation about how to reform the education sector – so we’ll have to wait and see what that brings. (Birmingham discusses some of his thoughts here.)

But that’s not to say both ministers haven’t left their mark in some way. Over the past year, they’ve announced that:

  • Trainee teachers will be required to pass a literacy and numeracy test.
  • Australian graduates who move overseas will now have to pay back their student loans.
  • Academics are expected to spend less time writing for journals and more time working with industry to ensure their research has a commercial and community impact. Although we’re still none the wiser as to how to measure this impact.
  • From 2016, a funding freeze will be placed on private providers offering vocational education.
  • Changes to childcare funding are expected to make most working families better off, but will leave disadvantaged children with half the number of hours for early education.
  • Students will have to pass a basic numeracy test before graduating from school.
  • More funding will be given to help increase the study of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and computer coding – and to boost the number of women in science.
We talked about how to go about choosing the right university for you. from

To move the debate on from fees, we started a discussion around what universities are for and how to go about choosing the right university for you.

We looked at the damaging effect the increasing privatisation of universities is having on student learning and employability, staff contracts and morale, with sociologist Raewyn Connell suggesting it’s time for Australia to introduce a new university model that really serves the public.

There were also discussions around whether universities should be more transparent about how they spend their money following a report that revealed that universities were using students’ tuition fees to boost research rather than teaching.

And research found no improvements in Indigenous higher education participation or completion despite the launch of a major review in 2012.

Elsewhere, debate has been centred on improving and reforming teacher training and vocational education.

Despite rhetoric around low entrance scores, low literacy levels and poor initial teacher education, research shows that Australian universities do produce high-quality teaching graduates.

But as Australia continues to slip down global education rankings – and students continue to opt out of studying maths and science – how did the government decide to tackle the issue this time? Yep, more tests.

The first results from the literacy and numeracy skills trial test for trainee teachers saw most students pass: with 92% passing in literacy and 90% in the numeracy. Was it then pointless?

What research shows is lacking is better mentoring support for graduates and early-career teachers.

And the problems don’t stop at entry level. Being a school principal has become one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. A survey revealed that 41% of school principals have experienced threats of physical violence in the past year from parents and students – and many are calling for more protection.

While schools battle with aggressive parents and students, academics working in regional universities are faced with the bleak statistics that they are more likely to be bullied than their peers in city universities.

And we haven’t even touched yet on vocational education … which is a real mess.

Vocational Education and Training (VET) expert Mary Leahy summarises the (many) issues to date. Tightening regulation alone won’t address deeper problems in the sector, she said – what’s needed is a rethink of the funding and regulatory models, and also to decide what we want vocational education to do.

Our most-read piece of the year was about how to be good at maths. Research shows that memorising facts and completing drills are likely to improve your maths skills. from

But what seems like a remarkably depressing year was thankfully saved by the variety of interesting research being produced by our universities – and this is what really got people talking.

In cased you missed them, here are the articles that got the most reads this year:

  1. What is the secret to being good at maths?
  2. How to discipline your children without rewards or punishment
  3. How does your choice of university affect your future?
  4. ‘Chalk and talk’ teaching might be the best way after all
  5. Why universities should get rid of PowerPoint and why they won’t
  6. Orphanage trips by Aussie schools are doing more harm than good
  7. ‘Parents these days’ are judged too harshly
  8. What’s the best, most effective way to take notes?
  9. Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help
  10. The way we teach most children to read sets them up to fail

See you back in the new year!

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