My new Grattan report argues that teaching in Australian universities could be improved. But despite remaining shortcomings, I think significant progress has been made since the 1990s.
We often hear that with higher student-staff ratios Australian academics have less time to spend on students. But in the long-running course experience questionnaire survey it is the time-use questions that have shown the greatest improvement over time.
The figure below shows that the proportion of completing students agreeing that staff ‘put a lot of time into commenting on my work’ and ‘normally gave me helpful feedback on how I was going’ has roughly doubled since 1997.*
I think a major explanation is likely to be technology. The increase last decade matches with the spread of home internet connections. Academic staff became much more accessible via email and learning management systems than they had ever been before, and were also able to efficiently give the same or similar feedback to multiple students.
There were also good improvements (20 percentage points plus) in agreement with propositions such as lecturers were good at explaining things, teachers motivated me to do my best work, and staff worked hard to make their subjects interesting. These are not so obviously technology driven, suggesting that other forces for good teaching were at work.
These might include the spread of subject-level student surveys and their link to promotion and greater (though still typically very short course) training in university teaching.
Whatever the exact causes, these results highlight how increasing funding is not necessarily the key to improved education. Through most of these years, real per student funding for Commonwealth-supported students was declining. How universities organise themselves is the most important factor.
* All five points on the response scale were labelled for the first time in 2010, with points labelled strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree and strongly agree. In previous
years, only the anchor points of strongly disagree and strongly agree were labelled. This seems to have increased positive responses.