Australia Uncapped

The experiment with uncapping student numbers at Australian universities has been in operation for two years but despite the predictions of falling standards, there has been no significant change in retention statistics.

February 16, 2014

Recent opinion pieces by Australian higher education commentators in the Times Higher Education on the topic of uncapping student numbers suggest that overall, the strategy has been worthwhile. More students from more diverse academic and social backgrounds are now enrolled in tertiary studies.  In the Times article, Richard James, Centre for Studies of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, noted that despite predictions of falling standards, the sky has not fallen in.

Removing the caps on how many students a university may enroll came at roughly the same time that Australian government demanded that universities increase their intake from historically under-represented groups including, rural, migrant, indigenous, “mature aged” students and students from low SES backgrounds. Add that to the substantial numbers of students from overseas, whose academic skills and knowledge are often not matched by their English language capacity to articulate them and the make-up of the first year cohort is now substantially different from “how things used to be”.

The uncapping experiment has been in operation for barely two years but despite the inevitable predictions of falling standards, James points out that so far there has been no significant change in retention statistics or serious problems with under performance. Which is not to say that there are no significant concerns: increased and longer lasting student debt, larger classes, fewer tenured staff, more teaching-only positions and so on, present real problems that will need to be overcome.

James reports that universities are now employing staff who specialize in teaching first year students. Employing specialists and setting up learning support programs for first year students recognizes the need for some structural changes and acknowledges that a more diverse intake may require varied approaches to teaching. The staff working with these previously under-represented groups must be capable of guiding and supporting everyone in these heterogeneous cohorts towards the same learning outcomes. Subsequently, instructors of these new first year students need to be particularly skilled teachers to insure that everyone succeeds.

It’s difficult to be really good at teaching when scholars are rarely trained for it or provided support in order to acquire a measure of expertise.  It s particularly difficult to dedicate time to developing teaching skills early in one’s career when one is under pressure to publish papers, apply for grants, (learn to) supervise postgrads, and sit on committees. It is hard to be enthusiastic about teaching and dealing with new student concerns when one needs to build a career on the basis of other endeavors.

We need enthusiastic, well-trained, committed academic staff prepared to teach, a more diverse first year intake rather than risk instruction by jaded staff who might distance themselves from the challenge with the attitude that “students these days aren’t as good as they were in my day”. Cohorts may be more heterogeneous but by any indicator that is a good thing; diversity is something that can enrich the learning experience for everyone rather than stifle it.

Inclusive practice is good practice but to make it work teachers must be prepared to leverage diversity for the benefit of deeper learning by all. Cultivating specialists to teach first-year cohorts needs to become standard institutional practice supported by senior academics.  Maybe senior staff could even take a class or two themselves to become more effective with diverse enrollments! If universities are serious about training teachers for first year students, a couple of hours of generic training isn’t going to cut it—it will require substantial institutional dedication and support.

Rather than see cohorts drawn from broader backgrounds as indicators of either falling standards or economic rationalism promoted by administrators, increased diversity can re-invigorate undergraduate courses and create dynamic new learning experience.  But this will require a change in attitude, some training and a significant commitment.


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