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Yan Krukau/Pexels

Teaching and research are the core functions of universities. But in Australia, we don’t value teaching

This article is part of our series on big ideas for the Universities Accord. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reimagine higher education, and set it up for the next decade and beyond”. A review team is due to finish a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.


Teaching and research are the two core functions of Australian universities.

But teaching has long been treated as the poor cousin of higher education. It is generally considered low status, given little professional recognition, and sometimes even seen as the domain of those academics who are not successful researchers.

Indeed, the Universities Accord terms of reference, released in November 2022, didn’t explicitly include teaching as a priority theme for review. It was only mentioned in passing in relation to access and affordability.

It was more prominently included in the accord discussion paper released in February this year. This noted:

Strength in higher education teaching is a critical element in ensuring strength in the sector as a whole.

While this ambition reaffirms the core role of teaching, this goal must now be taken seriously. This needs to be through national and institutional commitments to support quality teaching.

The devaluing of teaching in higher education

Teaching lies at the heart of creating a high-quality learning environment and producing a high calibre of graduates.

Yet the teaching of university students has long been devalued in Australian higher education.

Academics are supposed to teach well, but it’s assumed simply being a subject expert is enough. Significantly, most undergraduate teaching is now done by casual academics, who are frequently paid exclusively to teach but receive no professional development to do so.


Read more: 'Some of them do treat you like an idiot’: what it’s like to be a casual academic


Despite federal government talk about wanting to ensure better outcomes for students, industry and the community, cuts to national teaching initiatives have also signalled a disregard for teaching.

For example, in 2016, the Coalition government cut funding to the Office for Learning and Teaching, a peak body that drove quality and innovation in university teaching. Since then, there has been no equivalent body to replace it.

Teaching also takes a backseat to research as an indicator of success. In international rankings, the “best” universities are commonly the most research-intensive. Within institutions, academics also say research is highly regarded when applying for promotion, with relatively little merit given to teaching performance.

A woman writes on a whiteboard.
Academics are supposed to teach well, but it’s assumed simply being a subject expert is enough. Christina Morillo/Pexels

What does ‘quality teaching’ mean?

Renewed commitment to teaching at university requires an urgent shift from narrow understandings of what constitutes “quality teaching” across the sector.

Quality teaching has many different meanings in higher education, but few – if any – get to the heart of supporting academic staff to deliver effective teaching.

The national Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching focus on three different areas of quality: the student experience, graduate outcomes and employer satisfaction. These indicators speak to different stakeholder concerns and outcomes – which are important in and of themselves – but don’t provide any clarity or guidance on what constitutes “good teaching”.

Student evaluations and teaching awards are marketed by universities as evidence of “quality teaching”. However, evaluations do little more than reveal student biases. They reflect perceptions of a teacher rather than anything to do with their actual teaching. And awards only allow a small number of academics to be recognised as “good teachers”.

These examples demonstrate how the management of teaching has become the dominant focus rather than the practice of teaching.


Read more: Australian unis could not function without casual staff: it is time to treat them as 'real' employees


A new way to ensure quality teaching

The Universities Accord could signal a genuine commitment to quality teaching if it reinstated a peak national body focused on the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education.

At an institutional level, the accord must also invest in the professional development of academics, including casual staff. Our research shows this can be achieved by providing a strong conceptual understanding of what quality teaching looks like in the university classroom.

In 2019–2020, we trialled the Quality Teaching Model as a mechanism to underpin teaching professional development with 27 academics. The QT Model is an evidence-based, practical framework to help academics generate constructive feedback and develop meaningful evidence to transform teaching and learning. This approach was adapted from a model education academics James Ladwig and Jenny Gore developed for the New South Wales Department of Education for use in schools.

The QT Model focuses attention on three core dimensions of “good” teaching practice. These are:

  1. intellectual quality: developing deep understanding of important ideas

  2. quality learning environment: ensuring positive classrooms that boost student learning

  3. significance: connecting learning to students’ lives and the wider world.

We worked with academics from a range of disciplines and at different career stages across designated teaching periods. When interviewed, participants reported the QT Model helped them feel their teaching was valued. They reported it reinvigorated many aspects of academic work, including course planning, collaboration within and across disciplines, and improving students’ learning experiences.


Read more: Our study found new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues


Where to from here?

The key legislation guiding higher education in Australia mandates academics should not only have relevant disciplinary knowledge, but also skills in contemporary teaching, learning and assessment.

A book with marked by coloured tabs on a table.
We need to prioritise the scholarship of teaching and learning. Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

But supporting quality teaching has always been a struggle.

The accord is a crucial opportunity to ensure universities deliver their core function of teaching. This is possible and achievable by reinvesting in the scholarship of teaching and learning, along with meaningful professional development in teaching for all academic staff.

This will require a strong commitment from government and the university sector.

Australian academics are already stressed, face huge workloads and are part of a workforce that has been casualised and endured mass redunancies. They also have to cope with the challenges of online learning and uncertainty around what Artificial Intelligence means for teaching and learning.

University students can’t receive a quality education without quality teaching. It is high time we recognise this and do something meaningful about it.

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