17 August 2010

Issues of the day: quality, compliance, and English language fluency

Two articles in the online edition of The Australian's Higher Education supplement caught my attention today.

The first reports on comments from academics teaching in the business disciplines in Australian universities (along with others who have an opinion about TEQSA and the ALTC disciplines setting standards project). I won't repeat the content of the article – you can read it for yourself.

A number of issues are highlighted by the article: the challenges ahead for TEQSA, the tussle between RTOs and the higher education sector (particularly universities and especially the Group of Eight), the question of an agreed definition of quality and how this might be measured, and the seeming disconnect between the implementation of recommendations from the Bradley and Cutler Reports.

Universities don't come out of this one looking good. The RTOs and the VET sector seem to be very willing to demonstrate that they have carefully aligned curricula with assessment strategies that test how well students have achieved clearly articulated learning outcomes. Universities, and in particular the Group of Eight universities, seem to be inclined towards the view that no one has any right to ask them to demonstrate how they measure academic achievement. If TEQSA is funded appropriately, and universities are required to participate in its compliance checks, many academic staff will be running to catch up with their colleagues teaching in other parts of the sector. In some ways, that is a bit unfair. Australian university lecturers, by and large, don't know much about teaching. They know about giving lectures, about running tutorial-based discussion groups, and about assessing how well students know the knowledge of the discipline, but most of them have no theoretical foundation to their teaching practice. Not their fault – they were hired because they know lots about their disciplines.

Maybe we should start by making it compulsory for all universities to enrol their teaching academics in proper teacher education programs – except, of course, those who already have a teaching qualification. At least then they would have the knowledge necessary to engage in a conversation about curriculum design and teaching strategies other than those invented in medieval Europe. We would, of course, have to acknowledge that this would take time away from research and current teaching activities – so we'll need to hire more academics to help with workloads, especially if we want the country to maintain research outputs and we intend to send more Australians to university. (And before you say anything, let me tell you that it's no good suggesting that Australian academics work harder or longer hours ... most of the good ones already put in 50, 60, or 70 hour weeks.)

Oh, yes, I suppose we could create two categories of university academic – the research academic and the teaching only academic. This, in my view, is a dreadful idea. It's the research that gives depth to teaching in universities. Many of the very best of our teachers are outstanding researchers as well.

So it's all a bit tricky.

The second article reports on moves by professions to require international students to pass English language tests upon graduation. Here's the thing: most Australian universities will enrol international students for whom English is a second (third, fourth) language if they achieve 6.5 on the IELTS test – somewhere between competent and good. This score does not guarantee that students are fluent in the language. That puts lecturers in a difficult position. It would be wrong to penalise students for poor English language skills unless fluency is a designated learning outcome for their chosen program of study – and because language skills are rarely articulated among program learning outcomes, they don't. That means that students who learn the declarative (foundational knowledge; knowing what or knowing about stuff in the discipline) and functioning knowledge (skills; knowing how to apply declarative knowledge to complete discipline-specific tasks) required by their course, and have sufficiently good English language skills to convey their understanding to the lecturer, pass the course. That gives us graduates – in accounting or nursing, for example – who can't get jobs because the employers expect a higher standard of English language skills.

That's all a bit tricky too.

Maybe the new government will have the answers.

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