Release type: Speech


Speech - Transition, Retention and Progression Forum


The Hon Julia Gillard MP
Minister for Education. Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
Minister for Social Inclusion
Deputy Prime Minister

Transition, Retention and Progression ForumOpening AddressMonash University – Caulfield Campus9 December 2009Melbourne

Thank you for the invitation to address you today at the commencement of an important conversation on the university experience.

I thank Monash University for hosting this conversation. And I thank Monash University for its strong commitment to making the transition from school to university as effective as it can be and its implementation of a number of programs to achieve this, including partnerships with schools in the region.

Today I want to talk to you about our ambitions to drive a better quality student experience through a focus on teaching quality and the reform program we are putting in place to reward universities that focus on this.

Our focus on quality fits hand in glove with our commitment to increasing equity of access to our universities.

If we have equity targets we must have quality targets.

Because there is no point in increasing participation in higher education if we do not ensure that students gain meaningful skills, improve their critical and analytical tools and develop the intellectual curiosity they will need to engage in the world of work and participate actively in civil society.

A quality university system that makes quality teaching its core focus will improve completion rates, enhance productivity, and ultimately improve our nation’s prosperity.

Today I will outline the Rudd Government’s quality agenda and explain how this fits with our vision of a stronger, fairer, better educated Australia.

I will also outline how we propose to continue delivering on this reform agenda.

Ed Rev – the revolution in quality

I have spent the past two years working to deliver a new era of quality and transparency in our schools.

To support the Government’s reform priorities – to accurately identify where there is the greatest need and encourage excellence – we needed a basis for fair, consistent and accurate analysis of performance.

So for the first time, from 28 January next year, there will be nationally comparable data on schools, whichever State or Territory they are in and whoever they are owned and operated by.

And, recognising that quality teaching underpins all successful schools, we have also reinforced our transparency agenda through substantial commitments targeting additional resources to schools that service disadvantaged communities, a strengthened focus on teacher quality and better support for students to stay at school and achieve more.

The Klein model in the State of New York is illustrative of the effect that an increased effort can have on aspiration alone.

Raising teaching standards has resulted in the poorest and poorest performing schools in New York now focusing their attention on college retention. They don’t just want to get their battling students into American universities; they want to make sure they stay there so they can successfully complete their studies.

If we can improve teaching quality and educational outcomes we can improve the lives of those learning – irrespective of their backgrounds – in a way which transforms lives.

This same challenge exists in the university sector.

Bradley Review – the lessons on quality

The Bradley review was the first comprehensive examination of Australia’s higher education sector in 20 years.

It hails the strengths of the sector – its diversity, its strong export performance and its role as the heart of our nation’s research and innovation.

But it also warns of the challenges that need to be met if we are to compete globally: underinvestment, falling levels of high skilled people compared to others in the OECD and declining quality.

The review and the Rudd Government’s response provide a pathway to increasing investment and access and puts the student at the centre of the system.

As a Government:

  • We have committed to a target of 40 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds having attained a bachelors level or above qualification by 2025
  • We have also committed to a target of 20 per cent of higher education enrolments at undergraduate level will be people from low socio-economic backgrounds by 2020

To help meet these targets we have committed to funding university places on the basis of student demand. In practical terms this means a significant expansion of our higher education system.

We have also brought in a very substantial new low SES loading to encourage and reward universities who enrol students from low SES backgrounds and are funding partnership programs to ensure that universities take the action needed to bring promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the system.

Soon will be releasing the new guidelines for this program which will make clear to universities the additional support they can expect to help them meet these targets.

And in addition to these measures, to support equity of opportunity, the Government has committed to fundamental reform to student income support as recommended by the Bradley Review. These reforms direct support to those who need it most and help our most disadvantaged families send their kids to university.

Last week our reforms stalled in the Senate leaving thousands in limbo and over 150,000 without our new scholarships.

We will bring these back to the Senate early next year because we know it will be almost impossible to meet our low SES targets without reform to student income support to help our most needy students.

In addition to these targets – the Government has also a firm commitment to quality and excellence which I want to outline in more detail today.

As a Government we will be using three key drivers to improve quality in the sector. These are:

  • Performance funding;
  • National regulation through the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency; and,
  • Transparency.

After a decade of neglect, quality in some of our higher education providers has been negatively influenced by several factors:

  • Low levels of indexation have meant that public subsidy to the sector had stagnated – an issue that we are addressing through the adoption of a new, higher level of indexation;
  • Lack of meaningful national regulatory arrangements to ensure that higher education providers met consistent minimum standards;
  • Lack of financial support to grow has resulted in inadequate facilities in many institutions and growing staff to student ratios; and
  • Removal of compulsory non-academic fees has also reduced the capacity of universities to offer a broad range of services which are integral to the university experience.

While graduate surveys tell us that the majority of students are broadly satisfied with their experience, more specific measures of quality reveal a higher level of dissatisfaction with teaching quality, workloads, the learning community, course goals and standards, assessment and learning resources.

These findings suggest that outputs and outcomes are being achieved despite in many cases poor quality interactions with students, poor feedback on assessment and the lack of social interactions within the university community.

Comparisons with the experience of students in UK and north American universities are also revealing.

Relative to the UK, Australian graduates from the class of 2006 rated their university experience lower on every measure bar one – which related to satisfaction with the feedback they received.

Relative to the US and Canada, Australian graduates from the class of 2007 rated their university experience lower on every measure – with no exceptions.

Discrepancies in ratings between Australian graduates and their UK and north American counterparts appear to be greatest in those areas most impacted by large student – staff ratios, such as

  • Student and staff interaction
  • Enriching educational experiences
  • Whether staff are good at explaining things
  • Whether teaching staff make subject material interesting for students

The Rudd Government’s response – delivering quality and equity

The Rudd Government recognises that delivering a better student experience and raising teaching quality will require a cooperative working relationship.

As I said, we are already delivering more places, new infrastructure, a low SES loading and higher indexation.

However, driving improvements in quality will not be achieved by funding alone. Funding will need to be tied to outcomes and higher education providers will need to be able to operate within a framework which rewards institutions that place greater emphasis on excellence in teaching.

If universities achieve their targets, they will receive performance funding.

The funding available to the sector as a whole will be $135 million per calendar year from 2011.

The Government will establish sector wide targets and indicators of performance which reflect the Rudd Government’s dual objectives of extending reach and enhancing quality.

And in many cases we will negotiate university specific targets with each institution so they can put in place their own policies and mechanisms to achieve their targets.

In the coming days, I will release a discussion paper which outlines potential indicators which could be used to measure outcomes relating to:

  • Student participation and inclusion– to increase the number of Australians with bachelor-level qualifications;
  • Student attainment – to increase the higher education participation of people from underrepresented groups;
  • Student experience – to enhance engagement and thus improve student outcomes
  • Quality of learning outcomes – to improve the quality of learning and teaching.

The first two indicators are very much focussed on outcomes.

The participation target will track progress towards achievement of the Government’s objective that by 2020, 20 per cent of undergraduate students will be from a low SES background and could include other equity groups.

A potential target for attainment may be used to help step out increments towards achievement of the Government’s ambition that by 2025, 40 per cent of all 25­34 year olds will have a qualification at bachelor level or above.

The other two performance funding indicators, student experience and quality of learning outcomes, will be used to encourage universities to implement qualitative strategies to lift student experience, enhance teaching quality and improve learning outcomes.

The student experience indicator will measure the extent to which students involve themselves in both the academic and non-academic dimensions of university life.

The quality indicator will measure improvements in the quality of teaching, while opening up opportunities for more Australians to gain a university qualification.

This indicator will reward universities that focus their efforts on what goes on in the lecture theatre, the online tutorial, the laboratory, and the teaching practicum.

It will focus universities’ attention on curriculum design and assessment practices.

Given the level of debate within the sector about what constitutes appropriate measures in this area, and what is at stake – excellence in outcomes for all students – I expect there will be a healthy dialogue.

Of course, the establishment of university specific targets will be tailored to an institution’s individual circumstances and strategic ambitions.

However, the requirement for each university to agree to a target against an indicator will not be negotiable. If a university chooses not to negotiate a target against a particular indicator, it would forfeit eligibility for the corresponding amount of funding allocated to that target.

To further enhance quality and in response to the Bradley Review the Rudd Government has also announced that a national regulatory and quality agency for higher education will be established.

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) will be an independent agency, operating at arms length from government.

It will be responsible for accrediting university and non-university providers of higher education; for registering and carrying out quality audits and evaluations of institutions and programs, encouraging best practice, simplifying current regulatory arrangements and providing greater national consistency.

TEQSA will signal the beginning of a new era in quality in higher education, founded on a new standards-based quality assurance framework and supported by better performance information.

And finally, our reform agenda will contain a substantial emphasis on transparency as well, in line with our school level reforms – our new compacts between universities and Government will be public documents which make clear the public support flowing to universities and the targets that universities sign up to in return.

We committed to looking into new ways of making this type of information readily available to prospective students so that student choice – the centre of our new system – is properly informed by measures of university quality.

What can we expect from these reforms?

If the UK experience is anything to go by, institutional diversity will be crucial to achieving the targets.

In 2003, the UK similarly set out to increase students from low SES and other under-represented groups in universities, and to increase participation of those aged 18 to 30 years towards 50 per cent by 2010.

Last year their National Audit Office reported on progress against these goals in 2008.

Their findings with regard to both outcomes and outputs are instructive.

On the outcomes front, the Audit Office found that the participation of young, full-time students from lower socio-economic backgrounds had improved by two percentage points over four years.

On the outputs front, the assessment also suggests that new qualifications, modes of delivery and entry support have worked to enable students from under-represented groups to achieve success in higher education.

Another revealing finding from the UK experience is the performance of the ‘post-1992 group’ of universities relative to the older research intensive universities.

The more recent entrants to the higher education sector performed at or significantly above their expected participation benchmarks while the older institutions have generally performed at or significantly below their benchmarks.

This indicates that widening participation and delivering the quality to support it is much more than a marketing challenge – it’s a cultural challenge.

This challenge will be as real in Australia as it is in the UK but the Rudd Government expects all universities to work to meet our equity and quality targets.


For those of you here today that will soon embark on your higher education experience I wish you well, and encourage you to pursue university life for all that it has to offer.

It may not be apparent at 2 am when you are swotting for an end of semester exam, but participation in campus life will enrich your learning and professional life.

It is my aim – and indeed the determination of the Rudd Government – that we improve both the student experience on campus and the quality of teaching so that:

  • future students can make better choices about their studies and achieve better outcomes; and
  • Institutions can be better placed to do all they can to increase retention, completion and return rates.

Different universities, in different locations with very different histories and strengths will have the freedom to innovate to make their contribution.

But they all need to make a contribution if we are to meet the challenges of better representation in our unis and better outcomes for everyone.

I believe we have the capacity to not only improve university for students, but also enrich local communities, and local schools and their retention levels – provided we keep the reform focus on students, not protecting the status quo.

I encourage you all to participate actively in the consultation process that will precede the implementation of our quality framework.

I hope that the forum is productive and I look forward to hearing your ideas for improving transition and retention.

Thank you.