Neutral teaching centre won’t be so neutral once opened for tender

Promoting and funding teaching projects needs to be national, and not favour the elite universities. from

Last week’s budget included a substantial cut to the government’s own Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT), which exists to support research into learning and promote good teaching.

What is surprising is that the axing has met with so little resistance and less public outcry than is warranted.

According to its website, the OLT is being disbanded to “ensure that the Commonwealth’s investment in improved teaching and learning practices is driven by the higher education sector”. This basically says the government is telling universities to look after the quality of teaching themselves.

The duties of the office will be opened for tender to an Australian university, with a small proportion of the funding the OLT used to receive.

Who will get the tender? Geoff Penaluna/Flickr, CC BY

The amount it costs to have a genuinely national body that oversees, supports and showcases outstanding teaching that responds to the changing needs of students and employers and results in empathetic and global citizens is small compared to the benefits.

The recent announcement that it was being put out for tender suggests the government has a flawed understanding of what the role of the office was:

From 1 July 2016 a new institute will be established, with $28 million in funding, to promote excellence in teaching and learning. This will involve administering the grants, fellowships and awards under the Promotion of Excellence in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education programme.

But the OLT and its forerunners were meant to be much more than simply “dolers-out-of-money”: it was meant to provide resource-rich support to all who teach in all universities in the country. Importantly, it was meant to be neutral.

By announcing that “universities will be invited to bid to host the new institute”, it seems that one lucky player is going to win the big prize. Only a handful of universities have the facilities and capabilities to host such a centre.

Among the likely candidates is the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Despite it being the place of my employ, I have no idea whether it is throwing its hat into the ring. My prediction is that the tender will be won by one or other of the elite Group of 8 universities.

The body that represents Australia’s universities, Universities Australia has been muted in its response to the abolition of the OLT.

Its CEO, Belinda Robinson, claimed somewhat feebly that the sector as a whole had not been consulted about the changes and that the organisation

will strongly oppose any moves to downgrade the government’s commitment to teaching and learning excellence in higher education.

It’s not exactly a call to the barricades; more like resignation and the hope that as long as the new centre gets a new home somewhere, things might still turn out okay.

Universities Australia wasn’t too upset about the cut. AAP

The Regional Universities Network doesn’t seem all that perturbed either.

Whichever university wins the tender will be hard pushed to be seen as maintaining even-handedness in which initiatives it supports. The OLT not only supported research into teaching and learning, it was a neutral national champion of excellence. That is something the country can ill afford to do without if it wants all its universities to prosper.

I suspect that the move ultimately has little to do with ensuring Australia’s reputation of a leading and progressive higher education sector is enhanced.

Rather, it shows the government is still determined to create a two-tiered higher education sector in which a handful of universities, probably about eight, are free to exploit their international standing by attracting the best and brightest students for the highest fees, while the others service the rural, regional and vocational students.

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