Release type: Speech


Office for Learning and Teaching Australian Awards for University Teaching


The Hon Senator Scott Ryan
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Thank you for the opportunity to be here at the 2014 Australian Awards for University Teaching.

It is a pleasure to be here to pay tribute to outstanding teachers from our universities.

The standards you set are the backbone of our institutions.

I would like to acknowledge:

  • Members of the Office for Learning and Teaching Strategic Advisory Committee for administering these awards and organising this wonderful event, particularly:
    • Professor Margaret Gardner, Chair of the Office for Learning and Teaching Strategic Advisory Committee
    • Professor Tim Brailsford, who is also our MC this evening
    • Professor Jane Hollander
    • Professor David Sadler.
  • Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors and university executive present tonight, and most importantly, the award recipients and those sharing this important occasion with you.

Unfortunately the Minister Christopher Pyne is unable to attend this evening, but he passes on his personal congratulations to each of the award recipients.

It was under the former Howard Government that the Australian Awards for University Teaching were first presented in 1997 in recognition of excellence in higher education teaching.

The importance of these awards has only increased in the years since.

This evening we honour award recipients from a wide range of disciplines and institutions – from the arts, business, education, social sciences, and science, technology and mathematics.

In separate ceremonies during September and October, 183 teaching and professional staff were also recognised with citations for outstanding contributions to student learning. 

Earlier today, the Government announced $5.8 million for 30 multi-institutional learning and teaching projects recommended by the OLT Strategic Advisory Committee. 

Through the projects, institutions will bring new insights to matters, including the experience of students at regional universities and the growing group of postgraduate coursework students.

Professor Paul Ramsden identified six key principles in his 2003 book Learning to Teach in Higher Education.

Those six principles endure and remain as relevant today as they were when he identified them more than a decade ago. 

Teachers demonstrate excellence through the ability to:

  • explain complex material
  • engage student interest
  • show concern and respect for students and their learning
  • set appropriate assessment
  • give quality feedback
  • learn from their students. 

Our award recipients embody these principles every day.

There has never been a better time to highlight these achievements and the importance of quality in higher education teaching. 

Australia’s higher education landscape has changed substantially in a relatively short period of time.

Higher education has become more widely accessible than at any point in our history.

In 1949, Australia had 31,753 students at seven universities, with a handful more studying at the few higher education colleges.

Less than a lifetime later, in 2013, there were over 1.3 million students studying at more than 170 registered higher education providers. 

More than a quarter of domestic students study by external or mixed mode and over one-third study part-time.

In 2009, 469,000 places were funded by the Government.

This year we expect to fund 598,000 places – an increase of more than 27 per cent.

And our student body is much more diverse now than ever before.

But we also face some significant challenges.

As the numbers and mix of students change, teaching methods must also evolve to keep pace.

As the student cohort diversifies, focusing on the retention and attainment of students is growing in importance.

A significant number of students at the bachelor level move between courses or institutions. It is also apparent some drop out altogether.

We know that not every student who commences higher education will complete their course, for a variety of reasons. 

But it is also increasingly clear that reform is required to mitigate against increased non-completion rates.

The Government’s proposed reforms to higher education are vital to creating the environment in which quality teaching can be pursued, which we know will assist in addressing this.

Initiatives that will assist higher education providers to realise these objectives include:

  • the uncapping of Commonwealth supported places for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas, and associate degrees
  • better opportunities to help prepare students for university study through pathway programmes
  • providing increased freedom and autonomy through fee deregulation so institutions can better meet the needs of their students
  • establishing new Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching to focus the spotlight on what students and employers think of the quality of courses and institutions.

It is important to this Government that pathways to and through education are clear and that they recognise people have different starting points.

Currently, only students studying bachelor-level courses at universities are guaranteed to have their place directly supported by the Australian Government.

Students undertaking higher education courses at the sub-bachelor level deserve support. 

Not just those students at public universities, but students at TAFEs, private universities and other private higher education institutions.

We will expand access to higher education by providing unlimited places for diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees – both for less prepared students and qualifications for jobs in their own right.

Pathway programmes equip students with the necessary academic skills and understanding to be successful in degree-level studies.

Many of the students who enroll in sub-bachelor courses come from lower socio-economic status backgrounds, and many are the first in their family to pursue higher education.

The Government’s decision to introduce a new Bill to deregulate universities and spread the benefits to more students is because we believe reform is essential.

Importantly we will also now provide a more generous HECS system than currently exists, with new mums and dads, who are the primary caregivers for young children, receiving a five-year HECS pause.  We will also keep HECS indexation at CPI.

By giving Australia’s higher education institutions greater autonomy through fee deregulation, there will be greater innovation and quality.

Our plans to reform higher education will drive a greater focus on teaching and learning.

Deregulation of fees provides the means for institutions to properly resource courses according to the needs of students.

Universities will have both the incentive and the capacity to determine which courses, what kind of teaching, and what kind of support and scholarships for students they want to offer.

Think about it this way: if you were provided with the desired level of resourcing, would this change the way courses are delivered in your faculty? I suspect many of you would like to make at least some changes to the ways you currently teach.

Many have already identified the opportunities ahead, if our reforms pass.

Our higher education reforms will encourage universities and other higher education providers to actively compete for students.

Not just on the variations in the range of courses offered to students.

And clearly there will also be a greater emphasis on value for money.

Institutions will compete to provide the highest quality student learning experience and pay more attention to the needs of students than ever before.

I have already made the point about how important teaching is to student outcomes, retention and the quality of higher education in Australia. 

But how do we measure quality?

One way of driving quality is through the provision of information for students and their families about study choices.

Students deserve clear information about how successful previous graduates have been at securing employment.

They also need to know what other students and employers think in relation to the quality of the course.

The Vice-Chancellor of Griffith University, Professor Ian O’Connor, has provided substantial leadership in the area of student surveys.

We are grateful to Professor O’Connor for this important work and for now leading the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) Working Group.

The Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) will provide a coherent suite of surveys for higher education that cover the student lifecycle, from commencement to employment.

The results from the surveys will be published on a new website.

QILT will also enable Australia to compare its performance in higher education against other countries, particularly the United States of America, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and continuously improve.

This Government has also reformed the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

The TEQSA Amendment Bill 2014 progressed through both houses of Parliament last week.

Measures contained in the Bill give effect to key recommendations from the Review of Higher Education Regulation undertaken by Professors Kwong Lee Dow and Valerie Braithwaite.

TEQSA is now in a better position to operate more efficiently so institutions will have more time to focus on high quality teaching, learning and research.

We must strive to not only keep up with our international competitors, but to keep ahead of them, and quality teaching plays a critical role in this.

In 2012, around six per cent of all international students, according to the OECD, studied in Australia, making us the fifth most popular destination country.

Through your pursuit of excellence, university teachers have a crucial role in maintaining the strength and attractiveness of Australia’s universities.

More countries are realising the benefits of international education and students are becoming more mobile.

It is crucial that the quality of teaching we offer our students outpaces the intensifying global competition.

More world-class universities are emerging and global competition for international students is increasing.

This is occurring at a time when technology is driving change to the way students learn, student expectations and, importantly, how teachers teach. It is driving the expansion of online education through new learning and business models.

Australia is a leader in many aspects of higher education learning and teaching, particularly around distance learning, the use of technology and peer review of assessment.

That’s why the work funded and recognised through the Office for Learning and Teaching in its grants, fellowships and awards is so important.

While core principles of quality teaching will stand the test of time, the nature of higher education teaching will be directly impacted by the tools which teachers have at their disposal.

That is why the Government has recognised technology-enhanced learning, including Massive Online Open Courses (or MOOCs as they’re more commonly known) as a strategic priority for the Office for Learning and Teaching.

Online education and MOOCS offer students, researchers and teachers new learning, teaching and innovation opportunities. 

Today’s ceremony shows that our university teachers are up to the challenge and gives recognition to the innovative strategies being used in this dynamic era.

The Government is committed to providing all Australians with the opportunity to pursue a university degree at a quality institution with outstanding teachers. This is something we can all agree on.

A world-class higher education system requires world-class learning and teaching. Tonight we recognise your achievements as world-class university teachers.

I congratulate all those who receive awards this evening and all those who continue to inspire learning.