In the shadows of policy: Is student learning getting the spotlight it deserves?

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Higher education is experiencing a period of profound change. One could argue that this has been the case for some time, and it is now a tiresome cliché to say so. Nonetheless, in addition to still dealing with the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of generative artificial intelligence, the Australian higher education sector is also undergoing a once-in-a-generation review, the Australian Universities Accord.

At the time of writing, an Interim Report has been delivered and the final report is being prepared. A set of recommendations have already been put forward and are being acted upon by policymakers.

There are many aspects of the Interim Report related to learning and teaching that are to be commended. The clear aim to create more opportunities for underrepresented students to come to and succeed in higher education is most welcome. The Accord’s emphasis on further expanding the opportunities for a wider range of aspiring students is a step in the right direction.

However, and perhaps most critical for a community engaged in higher education research and development, there is a lot missing. Of most concern is a lack of emphasis on learning processes. As researchers and scholars, we can and indeed have argued about what learning is and how best to facilitate it in higher education for well over a century. What is less up for debate is that high-quality student learning is core business for higher education institutions.

In the Universities Accord Interim Report, learning is mentioned on 73 separate pages. Not one of those mentions is about actual learning. Each mention is either the generic term ‘teaching and learning’ (which in this context means teaching) or a concept like ‘active learning’, which is also more about teaching than it is about learning. In other words, in a 150-page key policy document shaping the future of Australian higher education, the core business of student learning is not discussed at all.

The Interim Report is now being actioned. I won’t bore you with details of the draft legislation but higher education institutions in Australia will be required, by law, to adequately support students to succeed or face a fine of just under $19,000 AUD. Again though, the draft legislation doesn’t refer to or even allude to the main contributor to student success, the actual process of learning.

There seems to be an assumption that the main reasons students fail once they get into higher education are because they have poor literacy or numeracy, that there isn’t enough contact with teachers, or that assessment practices are too inflexible. While all these factors are indeed issues, the research and data suggest that they are not near the top of the list.

Giving opportunities for students to come into higher education, to feel supported and safe, and to feel as though they belong on campus are all important aims and should absolutely be priorities. Ensuring that students have sufficient literacy and numeracy makes sense. Providing more flexibility in how and when students complete assessment is arguably reasonable, particularly given the current state of the world. However, what is the point of all that if they don’t learn anything?

The learning that matters is hard, it takes time and effort. Education is not a transaction, it is a partnership and one where everyone needs to work at it. Engaging with the required work is undoubtedly harder when there is a cost-of-living crisis, and many students need to work and manage other commitments while they study. In response, and in the wake of the pandemic, institutions have accelerated the provision of more flexible ways of engaging in learning in higher education. More flexibility necessitates greater emphasis on making good judgements about how students are going relative to where they need to be and making good decisions on the basis of those judgements. Flexibility inherently means less structure to support judgement and decision-making.

The (in)famous Dunning-Kruger effect and many other observations show that humans are often not naturally good at knowing what they know or don’t know. This is particularly the case in domains where there are a lot of complex concepts to engage with, which is precisely what a ‘higher’ education should be about.

There are some incredible people and programs in Australia and around the world supporting students in making good judgements about their learning and helping them make good decisions about their progress. Unfortunately though, it is still all too common that the main support for actual learning provided to students is an optional one-hour workshop on learning how to learn in an overcrowded orientation week and some (no doubt excellent but often hard to find) resources on the institutional library website.

There is an enormous body of research on how to help students learn and learn how to learn in higher education. Yet very little of this is being adopted at scale in practice and none of it is filtering through to policy discussions. If higher education is to achieve the laudable aim of helping a larger and more diverse group of students to succeed, there needs to be a more thoughtful, research-informed discussion about what happens once they get in the door.

Image of informal university learning space generated by Jason Lodge using Midjourney

The HERDSA Connect Blog offers comment and discussion on higher education issues; provides information about relevant publications, programs and research and celebrates the achievements of our HERDSA members.


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