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Speech for OLT Citations’ Presentation Ceremony

24 Sept 2013

In the past, when I’ve reflected my own career I’ve often thought that I’ve been extremely lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

With research, for example, I was mucking around with counting kangaroos at a time when aerial survey of wildlife was being introduced to Australia. On a less glamorous front I also used faecal pellet counts as a census method for roos.

Unfortunately, I was reminded of this following the recent election and the appearance of home videos featuring Ricky Muir from the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party.

As a geographer, I was there when Landsat and satellite remote sensing arrived as new tools for environmental monitoring and management and a decade down the track I was able to play with NASA and their new generations of RADAR and airborne multispectral scanners.

And it was much the same on the teaching front. I was able to engage with CAL (computer aided learning) from the late 1980s. So I am inclined to smile when people talk about the “new” focus on online learning and flexible delivery.

And when I look at what academics, professional and technical staff are doing across the sector every day of the week it seems to me that mine wasn’t a golden era – every era is a golden era.

Opportunities are continually presenting themselves to individuals who want to grasp them and be innovative or just make a difference.

At our place at present we’re in the final stages of designing a new building where the focal point will be the very latest in 3D visualisation technology.

We’ve had senior staff visit the best facilities in the US and they’re like a bunch of kids in a candy shop about the potential for research and teaching.

But one of the really interesting things to me is that there appears to be very little evidence based research on how you use these new technologies effectively for teaching – and, of course, 99% of Australia’s university staff have never seen one of these visualisation facilities, let alone used one for teaching or student support activities.

What an opportunity for innovation and educational excellence.

The current hype about flipped class rooms, MOOCs and disruptive technologies - what a fantastic laboratory for people with a passion for student learning and pushing the boundaries.

So I’m very enthusiastic about where we’re going and what we’re going to see showcased by the OLT Citations in the years to come.

There’ll be new themes and areas of excellence emerging but behind the newer trends, or more accurately anchoring the new directions, will be outstanding teachers and people with a commitment to student learning. It’s something that I believe won’t change.

One of the peculiarities of these modern developments in teaching, the educational technologies field, is an undercurrent suggesting that meaningful interactions between university staff and students will be much less important than in the past. I don’t agree.

Over the years I’ve seen versions of this theme in my interactions with Indigenous education and indeed school education in general where new and recycled methods of teaching or instructing regularly appear, are lauded as new breakthroughs and then fade away.

Behind all successful instructional approaches that I’ve observed are inspirational teachers and support staff.

Once you remove them from the equation and rely on mere mortals to deliver the package, the advances disappear very quickly.

The sector has always relied on inspirational teachers and in a very odd twist, a new call has emerged with the deregulation of university enrolments in 2012. But first a bit of history.

25 years ago, the John Dawkins White Paper “Higher Education – a policy statement” was tabled. It was a true revolution.

It led to a massification of the university sector that dwarfs today’s debate about letting universities decide how many students they’ll accept. Colleges of Advanced Education and Technical Colleges became universities overnight.

This wasn’t necessarily welcomed by the existing universities. Some thought it was the end of civilisation as it was known at the time. There were claims about “dumbing down” degree level study.

However, the world didn’t end and indeed many of our Citation winners here today are from Dawkins and post-Dawkins institutions.

As I observe recent debate about the deregulation of university enrolments and calls for the introduction of entry standards and the recapping of enrolments I can’t help thinking, “Here we go again.” 

Deregulation of university enrolments was driven by the Bradley Review of 2008 and it was Julia Gillard who implemented the review as the Education Minister of the time.

The most memorable aspect of the review was the 40/20 goal – 40% of Australians between 25 and 34 years of age to have a degree by 2025, and 20% of enrolments to be by low-SES students by 2020.

The recommendations of the Bradley Review are multi-pronged but to me the most powerful are about equity and social justice.

And as far as I’m concerned, imposing entry scores and re-regulating numbers will disproportionately affect low-SES students. This is not to say that high income students with lower entry scores aren’t the biggest beneficiaries of deregulation – in fact it appears to be heavily biased in their favour – but given there are such small numbers of low-SES students with high entry scores, this group would be the big losers if the current rules were changed substantially.

There is a strong relationship between SES status and school outcomes that does not necessarily reflect ability or specifically, ability to succeed at university.

And what are we worried about? The research is quite clear that students with lower entry standards can cope with degree level study as long as their pathway involves extra support.

The latest bid regarding entry scores was an ATAR below 60 (or for Queenslanders an OP of about 17). The tragedy is that if we look at students with an ATAR below 60 about 50% currently fail to progress.

Nevertheless, as noted in the recent Grattan Institute report, “Keep the Caps off”, at least the other half of them are changing their life prospects substantially and that’s a lot better than the alternative – of none of them having that opportunity.

And it’s a challenge for the academy. As with disruptive technologies, we can expect to see our colleagues accept the challenge. Catering to disadvantaged cohorts of students has always been a feature of the Citations’ program and perhaps we’ll need to see more of it in the future.

And this is one of the very special attributes of the OLT Citations. They deliver to us inspirational mentors who are where the rubber hits the road, demonstrating best practice and usually with a large dose of innovation.

All the citation recipients here today are innovators and practitioners in educational excellence. It is fitting that the academy recognises their achievements and that their students and colleagues are also able to witness this recognition occurring at the national level.

Congratulations to all of you. And while today may be a high-point of your career, I trust it will only be a way-point. We all thrive on recognition, but remember, in the learning and teaching environment climate change is a fact of life.

You will be confronted with new challenges and opportunities – whether it’s disruptive technologies, students from non-traditional backgrounds, or quirky new generations of students, our world is changing and will continue to change.

Enjoy your success but use it as a platform to further achievement. In particular, now that you are officially leaders in the field, I hope you will accept greater leadership responsibility and become more effective champions of student learning within your individual institutions.

But right now enjoy the rest of the ceremony and the evening and accept my congratulations and the congratulations of everyone who is here this evening to support you.

Thank you.

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