A National Celebration of Teaching Quality — Briefly
Every year the Office of Teaching and Learning handed out awards with substantial monetary awards to excellent teachers and innovative programs. Getting nominated was a big deal.
The news that the Office of Teaching and Learning is to be shut down has been met with a remarkable lack of fanfare. The OLT is the federal organisation that supports research and innovation in teaching and learning in Australia and provides rewards for outstanding teaching across the entire tertiary sector in the country.
It has had a troubled existence. First called the Carrick Institute and later renamed the Australian Learning and Teaching Council – presumably to assert its equality with the Australian Research Council, even though it really isn’t in the same ball park when it comes to money, status or clout – and finally the OLT. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why its demise has not stirred up the furor it ought. Having an OLT grant or fellowship on your CV pales in significance to an ARC one. And yet, it shouldn’t, because they were just as hard to obtain and probably resulted in more “real world” applicable research. But, of course this just reflects the primacy of research, even though most Australian universities earn more revenue from teaching than from research.
Another reason why the responses to OLT’s demise would barely fill a tea-cup is that it has been accused of being an exclusive club, hard to get in, even harder to get out. Of course the ARC is routinely accused of the same bias. There is no evidence of ths actually being true in either case. In the OLT’s case data show that, if anything, it has been too egalitarian; that the high flyers have not had their fair share; that some of the minnows have punched way above their weight. The ‘ivy league’ group of eight universities, the ones that produce the most research and are known for excellence in teaching, only account for about a third of all OLT funding in the last five years. They do much better obtaining the ARC grants. On the other hand, every university in the country has received some OLT funding – including tiny institutions like the nascent Tabor College, a Christian college that was only recently granted degree granting status. The OLT was nothing if not inclusive.
Of course simply listing university awards ignored the OLT’s greatest achievements— encouraging higher education providers to collaborate. Many of the big projects funded involved academics from multiple institutions. And the rules of the game meant that the results of each project had to be disseminated to other universities. While that process was at times perfunctory, most of the time it worked well and produced ideas for further projects.
Finally, every year OLT handed out awards with substantial monetary awards to excellent teachers and innovative programs, initiatives to reach beyond what was already easily within our grasp. Over the years the award criteria changed but they were always aspirational, like a Grammy or an Oscar. Getting nominated was a big deal, something that said that what we do as teachers is valued. It didn’t matter that someone else won, Well, it did matter a bit, but it was just great that achievements in this area were valued.
So now it is up to each individual university in Australia to encourage excellence in teaching quality as it sees fit. Teaching quality will no doubt be encouraged by each institution, but it will most likely resume its customary place as somewhat less important than research and industry engagement. What is disappointing is that for such a small investment, Australia had a mechanism that encouraged universities to collaborate and showcased the importance of teaching on a national stage. Now these achievements will be recognized only on smaller stages with much less fanfare and undoubtedly less impact. It’s hard to see how that is a desirable outcome.
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