Chapter 5: The most promising students
- Identifying students of promise
- Improving curriculum review
- Enhancing excellence in learning and teaching
- Attracting and training the most promising research students
- Meeting the distinctive needs of international students
- Developing a coordinated approach to Indigenous education
- The student experience
- Membership of a lifelong learning community
The University of Sydney has an outstanding tradition in the education of the nation’s leaders. It is no accident that so many public figures have received their university education at this University. Our students are all high achievers when they begin their studies here. We are the first-choice university for New South Wales students by a wide margin, and we are the first-choice university for many students coming to study here from overseas. This is not surprising. We have a tradition of excellence in teaching and staff committed to adding value to the experience of our students. Graduates of the University go on to make significant contributions to the future of the nation and participate as leaders in the international community.
The Sydney vision of education has five key elements. First, academically, we believe that the core function of a University is to produce skilled 'critical thinkers', people with fundamental skills in the analysis of data, in the construction and critique of argument, and in oral and written expression. A Sydney education, whether generalist or professional, and in addition to whatever disciplinary expertise or professional skills it imparts, is an education in critical thinking, in the intellectual skills that we believe can found a contribution to Australia and the wider world. This requires both breadth and depth of study, so that the student can master skills of analysis at different levels of generality. It is an approach to education that has implications for both our generalist and professional degrees.
Second, and as a consequence of this first characteristic, we believe that a Sydney education must be conducted in a research-active environment. The connection between teaching and research is one that can seem elusive, but that we believe to be critical. Importantly, it does not rely upon researchers teaching the subject matter of their research, or presenting students with only their 'latest' findings. The suggestion that it might do sometimes springs from the use of the term 'research-led' teaching. But we would prefer to talk about 'research-enriched' teaching and, indeed, 'teaching-enriched' research. It is our contention that the activity for which we aspire to prepare our students and in which they should engage during their education is the production of new knowledge and understanding. In their critical thinking, in their analysis of data, in their construction and critique of argument, they should be aspiring not merely to reproduce the thinking of others, but to contribute their own understandings of the material with which they are dealing. This is the same activity in which our researchers engage, and there ought to be continuity between the preparation of a student in the first year of their undergraduate degree and the work of the scholars by whom they are taught. If this is the case, then the research culture of the University ought to be very present in the classroom, even when the class is dealing with relatively elementary material. Indeed, it is our contention that a teacher seeking to present elementary material in new and more illuminating ways can discover insights that are valuable for their own research. It is for this reason that we would choose to speak not of research-led teaching, but of research-enriched teaching and of teaching-enriched research.
Third, because we see the student as themselves an active learner, it is important that they have some degree of flexibility in the curriculum that they follow, and in the trade-off between its depth of focus in a particular area and the breadth of its range. We have sometimes referred to this feature of our offerings as 'Sydney Choice'. The University's website boasts that: "At the University of Sydney we offer Sydney Choice – a wide range of dynamic courses with flexible degree structures. We don't believe one model fits all. We encourage you to start working towards your goal, your way, from your first day at university." However, while the notions of student autonomy and active learning are central to our statement of strategic purpose, we are also keen to ensure that the choices that are made are not unbridled, but reflect a coherent set of educational objectives. The important balance is between giving the student the freedom to follow their interests, and ensuring that the curriculum that they choose appropriately balances the depth and breadth of their learning in particular fields.
Fourth, our understanding of a student's education is holistic. That is, we are interested not merely that they develop skills of critical thinking, but that they develop the range of other graduate attributes outlined below. Moreover, we understand that the acquisition of these graduate attributes is enhanced if a student has the opportunity to participate in a range of activities on campus that are not formally a part of their degree program. In the consultation process, staff overwhelmingly told us that they believe a student's experience in student life outside the classroom is just as important a part of their education as their formal academic training in a discipline and in critical thinking. An important part of the University's proud tradition of producing leaders is its commitment to working with the student organisations to create a vibrant campus life.
Finally, at the heart of the University's understanding of its mission is the recruitment and education of the most promising students whatever their social or cultural background. This vision is one that is centrally aligned with the federal government's aspirations for higher education, especially with respect to the social inclusion agenda. It is important to emphasise that this is not an exercise in 'social engineering'. Rather, it is two things. First, it is a commitment to finding the students who can most benefit intellectually from the opportunities that the University has to offer, who can achieve the most while they are with us. In contexts of relative educational disadvantage, those students will not always be simply those who have attained the highest academic achievements measured by examination result at the point of entry. Second, it is a commitment to creating an educational environment that appropriately prepares our students for leadership in the community to which they belong. Particularly in the social sciences and humanities, the study of complex social phenomena is impoverished in a classroom that fails to reflect the cultural or social heterogeneity of the broader community. So, too, is the education of professionals to serve a diverse community.
This vision of a Sydney education is perhaps best captured in the graduate attributes endorsed by Academic Board policy. These are the attributes that we aspire to see in those who have participated in an education of the type outlined in this section. Staff of the University were pioneers in the fields of conceptualising and empirically studying such graduate attributes, and the University was an early mover in thinking through how they might be embedded in disciplinary study. The current Academic Board policy, written in 2004, requires all courses to specify how the relevant graduate attributes are embedded in ways that demonstrate their disciplinary relevance. Three core attributes lie at the centre of the University's curriculum and co-curricular activities. They are:
"...1. Scholarship: An attitude or stance towards knowledge.
Graduates of the University will have a scholarly attitude to knowledge and understanding. As Scholars, the University's graduates will be leaders in the production of new knowledge and understanding through inquiry, critique and synthesis. They will be able to apply their knowledge to solve consequential problems and communicate their knowledge confidently and effectively.
...2. Global Citizenship: An attitude or stance towards the world.
Graduates of the University will be Global Citizens, who will aspire to contribute to society in a full and meaningful way through their roles as members of local, national and global communities.
...3. Lifelong Learning: An attitude or stance towards themselves.
Graduates of the University will be Lifelong Learners committed to and capable of continuous learning and reflection for the purpose of furthering their understanding of the world and their place in it."
In particular, these attributes are outlined by the policy to involve "a combination of five overlapping clusters of skills and abilities developed in disciplinary contexts." These five are:
"...1. Research and Inquiry:
Graduates of the University will be able to create new knowledge and understanding through the process of research and inquiry.
...2. Information Literacy:
Graduates of the University will be able to use information effectively in a range of contexts.
...3. Personal and Intellectual Autonomy:
Graduates of the University will be able to work independently and sustainably, in a way that is informed by openness, curiosity and a desire to meet new challenges.
...4. Ethical, Social and Professional Understanding
Graduates of the University will hold personal values and beliefs consistent with their role as responsible members of local, national, international and professional communities.
Graduates of the University will use and value communication as a tool for negotiating and creating new understanding, interacting with others, and furthering their own learning."
It is encouraging that the importance of each of these attributes is widely recognised in our University, and grows out of a rich educational tradition consistent with the values of the University's founding and its continuing sense of purpose. The task for the planning period is to address the range of issues necessary to ensure that this educational traditional is maintained and enhanced.
Achieving the vision of education summarised here is a multifaceted and ongoing task. But there are eight priorities that we should tackle if we are to sustain and enhance the educational excellence of the University. In this chapter we will deal with those eight priorities in a way that follows the career of the student from admission to participation in our programs for alumni and lifelong learning. We adopt this approach because we regard all these priorities as incommensurably pressing. They are that we must: (i) find better ways to identify promise among students drawn from under-represented groups; (ii) introduce a University-wide mechanism for the routine and systematic review of existing curricula; (iii) enhance mechanisms to ensure the highest quality of our teaching and learning practices; (iv) enhance our ability to attract and train the most promising research students (including exploring a new structure for the Sydney PhD); (v) ensure that we are meeting the distinctive educational needs of international students; (vi) develop a coordinated approach to Indigenous education (and research) for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students; (vii) ensure the quality of the student experience, both in the dealing that the student has with the University as an institution and in the quality of on-campus student life outside the classroom, and (viii) ensure that, on graduating, the student is offered a part in the lifelong learning community of our alumni and friends. Each of these priorities should be addressed in turn.
A key finding of the Bradley Report was that people from low socioeconomic status SES backgrounds are significantly under-represented in Australian higher education. A student from a high SES background is approximately three times more likely to attend university than a student from a low SES background. In this context the federal government has announced 'social inclusion' as a major policy objective and aims to increase the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds from around 15 percent at present to 20 percent by 2020.
The University of Sydney has had since its foundation a commitment to providing educational opportunities on the basis of merit, regardless of social class or financial situation. We have developed and invested in a wide range of measures to attract and retain students of promise from a diverse range of backgrounds, including an established program of financial, learning and personal support as well as orientation and transition programs. We have one of the most generous scholarship and bursary programs in the country (at a cost of over $30 million a year). However, the University is not performing as well as many other universities with respect to the 'social inclusion' objective. Indeed the University has one of the poorest records on this measure in the country, with around 7 percent of our students coming from a low SES background. Nor are we performing any better in our admission of Indigenous students and students from rural communities. In 2008 some 65 percent of new undergraduate students were drawn from the relatively affluent eastern and northern suburbs of Sydney, with only 1.05 percent identifying as Indigenous (as opposed to 2.1 percent of the NSW population) and only 7 percent drawn from regional New South Wales (as opposed to 24.7 percent of the NSW population). We believe that this pattern not only fails to meet our social responsibilities as a leading Australian university, but also impoverishes the educational experience of those students who do come to the University. If we are to prepare students for leadership in a diverse community, and to help them think through issues that impact on wide cross-sections of the community, we can only do so in classrooms that bring together people from a diversity of social backgrounds.
Our principal challenge here relates to levels of admission. Although we cannot be complacent, the evidence suggests that our retention rates for students from low SES backgrounds, like that of other Group of Eight universities, are very good. However, entry to the University of Sydney is very competitive. More students list a preference for the University of Sydney than any other university in the state. Entry scores for many of our degrees are very high. This does mean that we tend to draw our local student population disproportionately from students from 'independent' and selective schools.
The question of equity and access often reaches much farther back into the educational system, long before students apply for admission to University. The evidence would suggest that there are systemic obstacles such as low school completion rates, low levels of academic achievement in specific schools, low levels of aspiration for higher education and peer group pressure to avoid university as a career option, which mean that students from lower SES backgrounds do not do as well in Year 12 examinations and therefore do not have the scores to gain admission to the University in the same proportion as students from higher SES backgrounds. One of the challenges for any equity and access strategy is to tackle the problem in a more fundamental fashion by assessing ways in which we might improve educational outcomes for students from low SES backgrounds from the moment they enter the school system.
We recently embarked on 'Compass Find your way to Higher Education', a new project to raise attainment and aspiration to participate in higher education among students from low SES backgrounds. The project is a partnership with local primary and high schools and the NSW Department for Education and Training, and is supported by funding from the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Through this program we are creating opportunities for teachers to develop their skills as well as a structured program to build the aspirations of students to achieve academically, hence equipping them to be competitive for entry to TAFE or a university. The program involves school visits, master classes, on-campus visits, a University blog for primary students and small-group mentoring.
Important as this initiative is in raising educational aspirations, it is unlikely, on its own, to increase significantly the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering our University. This does not mean that we should abandon the Compass program. The University is committed to the long-term public good, not merely the advancement of our own specific interests, and the Compass program is an expression of this philosophy. It does mean, however, that in order to provide an environment in which students of promise can thrive and achieve their full potential we need to find more sophisticated ways of identifying them and attracting them to join us.
Like most universities in Australia we rely heavily on performance in the major Year 12 state examinations, the Higher School Certificate (HSC), for determining admission to our degrees. This is understandable given the large number of entry offers we make each year (around 10,000 a year at the undergraduate level). Thus each degree has a set entry standard, an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) or equivalent. For students who have not sat the HSC or equivalent recently and may be seeking admission after a lapse of time since they completed formal studies (non-recent school leavers as they are known) the University Admissions Centre determines an ATAR equivalent based on previous examination results and sometimes other factors, such as employment record or other tertiary study results, to assess their suitability for admission.
We do give consideration to other factors and we have a variety of admission schemes that moderate public examination results and provide us with an opportunity to assess other indictors of potential. For example in areas that require special attributes or talents, such as music or creative and visual arts, audition or portfolios of work supplement examination results. Some faculties use field of study aptitude tests. We also acknowledge that sometimes health or family circumstances can impact heavily on the examination performance of individual students so special consideration and the Broadway scheme are formal means that allow students who just missed out on entry due to these factors to make a case for admission. Similarly some faculties operate flexible entry schemes, where they consider the tertiary record of students in the range five marks under the entry point to see whether there are signs of potential (for example excellent performance in subjects relevant to the faculty) that might warrant admission. Finally, we have a special admission program for Indigenous students (the 'Cadigal' scheme).
A student's ATAR score is some measure of potential and it would not make sense altogether to abandon the score in the admissions process. Yet the evidence is also very clear that once students from low SES and Indigenous backgrounds are enrolled at the University, their progression and outcomes are no different to those of the wider student cohort. Indeed this is an area in which the University's performance is much better than the sector as a whole (see Appendix 11).
The issue we are currently addressing is, therefore, that of the initiatives we might need to undertake in order to ensure that we recruit the most promising students from all social and cultural backgrounds. One thing that is clear, is that while we can make real headway on improving our levels of participation by underrepresented groups, we will be most effective in all these initiatives if we work in collaboration with the other universities in the city. For this the University has established a partnership with the other five Sydney-based universities to undertake activities in schools and the community to further social inclusion in higher education. The Sydney Widening Participation in Higher Education Forum (SWPHEF) is a unique initiative with the universities working in collaboration to support increased access and participation of students from low SES backgrounds, Indigenous students and regional students.
The following paragraphs raise some possible strategies for achieving the goal of increased participation at Sydney. Some of these strategies require considerable further development, while others could be implemented urgently.
Targets for increased participation rates
If we increased our current enrolment of low SES students by at least 50 percent this would result in an overall rate of around 10 to 12 percent. The federal government is developing, in response to the Bradley Report, a more robust measure of the SES of higher education students than it currently employs. But however it is measured, we need to set ourselves an ambitious target such as this. We need also to ensure that the implications of such a target are understood throughout the University. There is considerable variation in low SES intakes across our different faculties, currently ranging from around 4 percent at the lowest end to more than 16 percent at the highest. The reasons for these differences are complex and raise challenging issues for our faculties, but perhaps also for some of the professional bodies with whom we work. Our faculty deans and staff have certainly not been complacent about the issues and there are some excellent initiatives taking place at the local level to improve our recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the national importance of this issue provides our faculties with an opportunity to address it both internally and in conversation with their stakeholder communities. We believe that this process would be advanced by the University setting a collective target for low SES participation rates of around 12 percent, and then agreeing individual targets with each faculty as the relevant admitting unit. In using the term 'faculty' in this and subsequent chapters, we mean whatever the appropriate vertical unit might be in any agreed new structure.
An Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) bonus system
There is no doubt that ATAR scores are crude instruments to run across such a large potential student population. The important issue for the University is to come to a more complex understanding of what 'promise' actually means. There is strong evidence that students whose families have no history of higher education participation are significantly disadvantaged in gaining access to university unless they attend schools with a broad social mix. It has been argued in the research literature that this cultural disadvantage is embedded not only in the family life of low SES communities but in the differential access to educational and social experiences that bring together different SES groups. A student who has overcome significant cultural and educational obstacles to do well might have more promise than a student who has not. Australian research has found that high-achieving students from educationally and socially disadvantaged backgrounds with an ATAR score of up to five points below that of their more advantaged peers will achieve identical outcomes from their university education. If this is the case, then it seems that treating students from more privileged backgrounds and students from more disadvantaged backgrounds equally involves acknowledging this five-point differential. We would propose that students matriculating from identified disadvantaged schools be given a five-point ATAR bonus for entry into all undergraduate programs.
Review our general admissions criteria
As outlined above, it would be foolish altogether to abandon the ATAR as an important component of our admissions process, not least given the transaction costs of many alternative admissions processes. Nevertheless, we believe that real questions do remain about the weight that ought to be given to the ATAR in our admissions process, and whether there are other indicators of academic potential that ought to be relied upon as well. These might include such indicators as: field of study aptitude tests; interviews for some courses of study; references; portfolios; more nuanced information about the context in which a student's academic results have been achieved; or other possible combinations of tools to assess potential. There are, of course, live questions about whether such tools have more or less inbuilt bias than the ATAR score. But, although we have the schemes for individual faculties noted above, the issue of our dependence upon the ATAR system has not been explored across the board by the University, and we believe that the possible benefits of a radical reform of the admissions process should be considered.
A pathways foundation program
A University Diploma in Higher Education Studies would be one way of creating access opportunities for students of promise from disadvantaged backgrounds. A HECS-supported Higher Education Diploma could be established providing a pathway through to degree-level study at the University. In addition to tailored preparatory foundation units of study, it would be possible for students to enrol and to be examined in a limited number of degree-level courses. Successful completion of the diploma at an appropriate level, subject to published admissions criteria, would make them eligible for admission to a degree program after one year with credit for the units completed at degree level. (Experience elsewhere, for example at Monash University, has shown that over 80 percent of students completing such a foundation program subsequently accept a university place, with 45 percent offered their first choice of degree.) Moreover, the evidence from the University's own foundation program for international students has shown that over 80 percent of candidates subsequently gain admission to University of Sydney programs. (In most cases these students would have met the entry criteria at many other Australian universities before joining the program but acknowledge the added value of a University of Sydney education.) Similarly, the University has had considerable success with the University preparation courses offered for potential mature-age students through its Centre for Continuing Education. The new foundation program could also be undertaken in partnership with neighbouring education providers. We believe that we should actively explore the option of creating such a program to commence operation within a short time frame.
The location of the University's campuses also provides opportunities for us to build sustainable partnerships with neighbouring schools and communities. Given the inner-city location of our Camperdown/Darlington Campus, for example, we co-exist with localities marked by high levels of disadvantage and social exclusion. We need to do more to build mutually beneficial relationships with our diverse local communities and support social assistance programs in these areas. Some of this might also benefit the University's teaching, learning and research programs. For example, these arrangements might be the platform to provide more opportunities for our students to undertake professional placements and internships, which students already undertake as part of their degrees, to support local community-based capacity building. Engagement with our local community might also assist in our aspiration to create a university that is more alive, and responsive to, Indigenous Australia. The University has already begun forging partnerships with the NSW government, particularly the Department of Education and Training, the City of Sydney, Sydney Institute of TAFE and Tranby Aboriginal College. We are keen to build closer links with the University of Technology, Sydney. We are also keen to build stronger cooperation with the local Indigenous communities. Our aspiration is to initiate a precinct-wide strategy to partner with the local community, improve local infrastructure, provide employment opportunities, broaden the experience of our students, and be seen as a good neighbour by communities with whom we have an historic relationship. We believe that a coordinated strategy for engagement with the local community should be devised and implemented as a matter of priority.
A rural education strategy
The University of Sydney is a large metropolitan university but is actively engaged with students from rural communities in two important ways. First, as the leading university in New South Wales it is hardly surprising that students from rural communities aspire to study at the University, despite the considerable barriers that rural students can experience when moving from the country to the city. Second, the University itself is actively engaged in work in rural communities in New South Wales, including through our rural campuses. There are many faculty-based activities that contribute to life in rural communities, notably Veterinary Science (Camden); Medicine (Dubbo/Orange Rural Clinical School and Rural Departments of Health at Broken Hill and Lismore); Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (Narrabri); and varied involvements of the faculties of Education and Social Work, Nursing and Midwifery and Health Sciences. Nevertheless, as noted above, participation of rural students in the University remains low. Over the last two years, funded by University teaching improvement grants, there has been a series of very exciting bottom-up initiatives taking place led by academics from different faculties who have established a Rural Focus Group to bring greater coordination to our activities in rural communities and with rural students. One such initiative has been the creation of rural hubs for professional student placements. There has been significant federal government funding to develop initiatives of this kind, particularly for medical training and there is ongoing interest from federal and state governments in continuing and extending these involvements. We believe we must develop a University-wide rural education strategy that draws together the different educational activities and projects that University staff have been involved in with rural students and in rural communities and sets direction for future work in this area.
An integrated education and research strategy for social inclusion
As a comprehensive university with a strong research focus we also have a platform to develop the national social inclusion agenda in a profound way, through a cross-disciplinary initiative that might advance research into the factors that shape educational participation. Such an initiative might be based around the contribution of research into policy development on social inclusion more widely. A research centre for social inclusion could draw together the important work already going on in the University into the social, economic, education and health-related aspects of social inclusion and exclusion, supporting the development of new policy initiatives together with professional and community-based intervention and development strategies. This research-based approach would also allow the University's contribution to the social inclusion agenda to extend beyond simply meeting increased targets for low SES access.
If we are to play an important role in the government's social inclusion agenda, as we must, then we will need to act on each of these proposals, as well as putting more effort into our existing programs for attracting students from under-represented groups. Being more engaged in social inclusion is essential to creating and sustaining a university in which students of promise can thrive and fulfil their potential.
The University faces two challenges in curriculum reform, both of which are amenable to a similar set of solutions. First, Chapter 3 will have made evident our need to rationalise our suite of degree offerings across the University, and especially their duplication and overlap. It will also have made clear the need to think about inconsistencies in course structures and requirements that make the movement of students between faculties more complex than it needs to be. This is an urgent task for the University and the challenge is to find the appropriate fora in which it can be undertaken in a highly disparate structure for academic organisation.
Second, curriculum reform is needed, not only at the level of the University’s offering as a whole, but also in the case of many of our individual degree programs. The vision for education outlined in the opening section of this chapter stressed the need for balance between breadth and depth of study. It also stressed the need for balance between sufficient flexibility and sufficient structure in course programs, both to allow students choice and also to ensure that their overall curriculum is educationally coherent. It is not always the case that our existing course programs appropriately balance these two sets of demands. Thus we have some courses that are highly structured and that arguably offer insufficient flexibility. Other courses, however, are so flexible that students and staff can be confused about the learning outcomes that can be expected from the degree as a whole, as well as how these are embedded and developed in the component parts of the degree. At present there are, hypothetically, tens of thousands of unit combinations that can lead to some specialisations within the University. It is not clear that the enormous amount of choice that we offer on some programs at the moment is pedagogically justified.
Addressing each of these challenges in curriculum reform requires a routine, systematic, University-wide program for reviewing degree offerings. That we currently have no such system is perhaps even more concerning than the state of our curricula. It is not implausible that the lack of such a system will be seen as a weakness in the University’s educational offerings by the federal government’s newly created Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). We propose that curriculum reform should be undertaken within the University in two ways and that it should be addressed both to individual programs and to the question of how related programs coordinate and overlap.
First, given that much of the current complexity arises at the intersection of the work of current faculties, we propose that the new vertical units outlined in Chapter 4 should be required, as a matter of urgency, to consider the anomalies created by the current complexity of the academic organisation of the University. As for the issue of competing degree programs, the existence of fewer vertical units should enable constituent units to cooperate in developing a coherent set of courses. As for the reform of individual programs, given that many of our large undergraduate degrees, in which those problems are most acute, would be located within the College of Arts and Sciences, an appropriate forum will exist for negotiating resolution to many of the current discrepancies.
Second, while the Academic Board currently approves the establishment of new degrees and reviews the work of faculties, it does not have a systematic program for the review of existing degrees, particularly when they cross faculty boundaries. Although many degrees in professional areas undergo regular external accreditation review, these are not always attempting to test the same issues that might be of interest to the University. As suggested in Chapter 4, we are currently working with the Academic Board to bring existing Academic Board and Senior Executive Group reviews of faculties together into one process. We propose that the Education Committee of the Senior Executive Group, a committee which has wide representation of key faculty staff, and the Academic Board should initiate a program of degree curriculum reviews on a 10-year cycle. These could operate on the basis of self-evaluation tested by a review panel with some input from external expertise. They could relate to either one degree (as with the large undergraduate programs) or to a suite of degrees (such as master’s programs in a cognate range of areas within or across faculties). In the latter case they could make recommendations, not only about the reform of individual degrees, but also about the ways in which similar degrees might better be coordinated. These reviews should also, for reasons outlined in the following section, address issues of pedagogical practice within existing courses as well as curriculum.
This program of curriculum reform would, of course, be an ongoing one and would not deliver results overnight. It would, however, encourage a culture of University-wide discussion about how our degrees not only fit together, but also effectively deliver our graduate attributes. Were this culture established, the coherence of the University’s offerings would undoubtedly improve.
Underpinning the University’s aspirations for realising the potential of our ‘most promising students’, and the essential platform for building our research training capacity, are excellent learning and teaching practices. The University has a proud record in teaching and learning and its graduates, ever since the first intake, have made major contributions to society, both in Australia and internationally. Many of the quantitative measures of teaching quality rank the University high, with particularly good outcomes on indicators such as progression, retention, graduate destinations and overall student satisfaction.
Nevertheless, the indicators also suggest that our performance is patchy, stronger in some faculties than others, and weak on some indicators. For example, the recent federal government’s Learning and Teaching Performance Fund (2007–09) allocated money to universities on the basis of measures of teaching performance in particular discipline clusters. While many in the sector questioned the validity of some of these measures, the evidence did indicate that the University was strong, relative to our competitors, in such clusters as humanities, education, economics, business and law, and showed strong signs of improvement in science and engineering, but was comparatively poor in the health cluster. Similarly, student surveys consistently rank our physical infrastructure as poor. Our extensive internal teaching performance measures also indicate significant differences in levels of teaching and learning performance and student satisfaction across the University (see Appendix 12).
If the University is to match its teaching performance to its statement of purpose, close attention to our systems of learning and teaching is critical. Our efforts to achieve improvement will take place in a context of increasing government scrutiny of teaching performance and quality assurance, not least by TEQSA. Accountability has been a major theme in the public policy debates surrounding higher education for over a decade. A critical issue in accountability is prudent investment to deliver good outcomes in terms of student performance, satisfaction and ability to find a suitable place in the labour market. Again there are critics of the performance measures used, and the way the data is aggregated, and while some of these criticisms are legitimate, the inescapable fact is that governments will undoubtedly continue to distribute funds on the basis of performance to drive institutional behaviour in areas of priority and to ensure that there are measures of public accountability. The federal government’s intention to do so has already been signalled by the establishment of a new funding stream for learning and teaching performance, which will replace the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund after 2010.
An essential task facing us is therefore to identify the measures needed to ensure that we continue to develop in this area, that we roll out our best practices across all parts of the University, and that we systematically use evaluation techniques to feed back from quality assurance to quality improvement. In this, we will obviously have to be mindful of the external measures designed to assess quality and allocate performance funding, but our approach should not be entirely governed by these processes. More important is a frank assessment of our key strengths and weaknesses in the area of learning and teaching and putting in place appropriate policies and procedures where necessary to continue the enhancement of student learning. There is no doubt that all the student survey evidence highlights problems in our learning and teaching infrastructure, from poor maintenance of equipment and overcrowded lectures and tutorials to the lack of major spaces for research students. Nevertheless, redressing our infrastructure shortfall will not be sufficient. Learning and teaching performance improvement involves more than just better space in which to conduct teaching.
There is much that is excellent about teaching at the University. Even a casual glance at the individuals and projects awarded Vice-Chancellor and faculty teaching awards each year (some of which go on to receive Australian Learning and Teaching Council citations and other forms of external teaching recognition) can impress with the range, variety and sophistication of teaching innovation in the University. In such areas as transition to university programs, peer mentoring, e-learning, digital innovation, and studio, workshop and performance modes of teaching, there is a vast array of exciting cutting-edge teaching taking place. Moreover we have members of staff who are major scholars in the field of pedagogy, making important international contributions to the theory and practice of learning. We are not short of innovative teaching. Despite outstanding work by staff in the University’s Institute for Teaching and Learning, our critical weakness in many areas is a failure to translate best practice teaching into a broader institutional framework. Teaching innovation often remains at the local level rather than being rolled out to other parts of the University.
In other words, our efforts to improve teaching quality are at present disparate and do not easily facilitate the spread of good practice from one part of the University to another, even in contexts in which disciplinary specificity is no bar to doing so. For example, if one faculty were to introduce a particularly effective system of teaching mentoring for junior staff and to see it deliver results, whether that system spread to other faculties would largely be the result of serendipity. Until recently, we have essentially relied on the Academic Board as a forum for the propagation of best practice. The Academic Board has done a fine job over many years establishing important networks of staff throughout the faculties in areas such as learning and teaching. But it has no formal line management function, and the response of faculties and schools to innovation in teaching and learning can vary widely.
The solution to this may rest in part with more coordinated activity in the promotion of best practice through the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and the Education Committee of the Senior Executive Group, working with the Academic Board in its recently reformed role. The Education Committee now has formal responsibility for identifying best practice, disseminating it and, where appropriate, formulating policies that will ensure its adoption throughout the University. By integrating learning and teaching policy and practice into the Education Portfolio and ensuring that it is brought within the formal line management structures of the University for further consideration, we hope to ensure much greater consistency in policy and practice across the institution. The reformed role of the Academic Board is to focus on monitoring academic standards and reporting its findings to the Senior Executive Group and Senate. This should provide an additional incentive for all parts of the University to focus on continual enhancement of quality in learning and teaching. Through this means we aim to achieve significant improvements in learning and teaching outcomes.
As one example of more coordinated activity in developing teaching and learning, in 2009, on the recommendation of its Education Committee, the Senior Executive Group agreed that funding from the federal government’s Learning and Teaching Performance Fund (LTPF) should not simply be passed on to the faculties as it had been in the past, but that 90 percent of the money should be passed on to the faculties on the basis of a coordinated suite of teaching development programs agreed with the Education Committee and coordinated by the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education). The remainder of the money should be reserved for various existing University-wide initiatives to support teaching and learning. These proposals partly floundered when the government announced that the LTPF would be replaced with a new performance funding scheme from 2011 as part of its compacts framework and the funding available in the interim turned out to be considerably less than the anticipated $12 million thought necessary by the Education Committee to run an effective program of centrally coordinated, locally delivered teaching and learning improvement initiatives. Once the new performance funding arrangements are in place, however, we propose that the University should seek to set aside an equivalent amount annually through the planning period for the development of coordinated teaching and learning development activities.
In addition to these developments, we need to develop the work of individual teachers. Good learning is in large part the product of good teaching. A number of initiatives are underway in this area. The University has recently created teaching-focused roles so as to give staff time, at particular points in their career, to focus on teaching and learning, and has strengthened the possibility of promotion on the basis of teaching performance and pedagogical research. We also intend to strengthen our performance management processes to ensure effective mentoring to improve teaching performance. Other initiatives that could be rolled out more systematically across the University include peer evaluation, team teaching and continuing professional development. The latter, in particular, should be seen as essential for all staff: it is not unreasonable for our students to be able to expect their teachers to be regularly updating their professional education (not just through courses, but through approaches that support the improvement of teaching in the classroom itself). This is all part of developing a culture, not only in which teaching and learning development is better coordinated, but also in which individual teachers are more readily rewarded for their good work, problems identified and assistance more readily available.
Finally, we need a mechanism, beyond student experience questionnaires, not only to encourage good pedagogical practice, but also to identify areas for improvement. This is not simply an issue of individual teacher performance. For example, an important question will be whether an individual course involves an appropriate mix of learning contexts and practices, such as a justifiable mix of large and small group teaching, face-to-face and electronic learning. It is our intention that the course reviews proposed in the previous section should touch, not only upon issues of curriculum, but also issues of pedagogy. This should also be a part of the ongoing program of Academic Board and Senior Executive Group reviews of the faculties.
A key role for the higher education sector is to produce new generations of researchers to serve the needs of industry and universities. Research training is essential to the health and vitality of innovation in any economy. A vibrant research training environment, one that is comprehensive and diverse is critical for an effective innovation culture. As the Cutler Report has argued “innovation pre-eminently determines our prosperity”. In this context a healthy research training culture should embrace a wide range of disciplines and cross-disciplinary areas.
Attracting research students
Recent evidence suggests that Australia will face a significant research training crisis over the next decade. The number of PhD students currently produced each year will be insufficient to replace the number of academics projected to retire in the next decade, let alone meet the growing demand for research scientists in private industry. Worse, as outlined in Chapter 2, this will be an international phenomenon. Thus the opportunity to supplement domestic training through immigration of skilled migrants in many fields will be more difficult than ever before. The immediate impact of this will be increased international competition for talent, which will place a premium on universities providing a supportive research environment to foster research and research training.
As noted in Chapter 2, the federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) has recently established a high-level advisory group to assist it to develop a national research workforce strategy designed to address the problem of producing appropriate numbers of research students to meet the projected levels of demand in different disciplines. Relevant considerations, likely to be canvassed by this task force, include: (i) the number of postgraduate scholarships available; (ii) the level of the stipend; (iii) collaboration between institutions; (iv) student mobility; (v) more industry support for research training; and (vi) industry internships.
These are also issues that we are examining as part of a Work Slate project focused on attracting able research students. In particular, ensuring an adequate number of scholarships for domestic students is fundamental and we welcome the recent Government initiatives on this front. However, a related issue, which requires more investment, is the number of scholarships for international research students. A significant source for our future research workforce must be promising students from overseas, but without a more extensive scholarship system and effective mechanisms to waive fees the number will remain relatively small. Adequate income support for research students is also a critical factor. In some disciplines we are already forced to top up the scholarship, sometimes as much as doubling it, to find any candidates to undertake research training at all. One of the important questions for the Work Slate project is how we can maximise our return on this investment in the recruitment of research students. In addition, we should as a matter of urgency consider the issue of joint degrees with overseas universities and whether we need to be more flexible in our approach to 'sandwich' arrangements in which research degrees are undertaken jointly at the University and overseas institutions.
Research training and the structure of the PhD
Another fundamental issue, of significance for the entire Australian higher education sector, is the quality of research student training. Here the sector has to confront some difficult questions arising from the history of the Australian system. In our view there are structural weaknesses in Australian research training culture and current government training programs to support higher degree by research in our universities. We are pleased, therefore, that the government-backed Research Workforce Strategy Reference Group mentioned earlier has been asked to examine key issues for the sector, such as the appropriate length of funding support both to institutions for tuition and to students for income support. Nevertheless, if we are really to capitalise on the potential of the 'most promising students', then tackling these issues within the University will be vital. We have begun this task with a Work Slate project led by the Academic Board, but a more fundamental restructuring of our research training than was possible within that project is arguably required to effect a significant leap in the quality of our research training.
The challenges facing research training in Australia can be traced back to our system of undergraduate education. Unlike the English system where undergraduate students concentrate on a very limited set of disciplines, or the North American system where undergraduate education tends to focus on foundational liberal arts and science studies followed by intensive postgraduate coursework programs, the Australian system encourages undergraduate students to be broadly based with an additional honours year of specialised instruction as part of the undergraduate program. The honours year, which normally centres upon a research project and thesis, comprises the primary preparation for higher degree study. Thus the honours year in many disciplines is an integral part of the research training system. The strength of the honours year is that it is focused on the production of a research-based thesis. However, it may be an inadequate preparation for a PhD because students rarely have the opportunity within the time constraints to gain any depth of experience or understanding across a wider range of methodologies and research methods other than those used specifically in doing the research for their thesis. Moreover, although the Australian system is based upon a traditional Scottish model, it is not widely understood internationally, and the status of the honours year is unclear to many admitting bodies for postgraduate study overseas. A key priority for us is to address the issue of whether the honours system is well suited to the demands of research training in the 21st century or should perhaps be abandoned.
Most doctoral students in research universities in North America undertake two years of detailed coursework study in their specific field and are examined at the end to assess their suitability for the supervised research project. In England the fact that most undergraduates have had a greater concentration of study in one field from the very beginning of their undergraduate degree also gives them the edge in depth (although they lack breadth). But even in the English system there has been recognition in recent years that more depth is required in particular disciplines as a prerequisite for research training, particularly in the social sciences, and new policies allowing an additional year of candidature (to enable more coursework) in these fields have been a positive development. In addition, many systems have introduced compulsory training for research students in areas such as research methodology, generic skills, ethics, commercialisation, planning a research program, and research grant writing. Meanwhile the University has been an active participant in discussions with other leading universities in Australia about what needs to be done to ensure that the Australian PhD remains internationally competitive.
In the light of these increasing demands, we propose the exploration of a new structure for the Sydney PhD. Broadly speaking, this should include a number of elements. First, it should include a period of compulsory training in a range of methodologies not only essential to the particular research project of the candidate, but also important to the discipline within which that research project falls. Thus, for example, students in the social sciences might expect to take compulsory methods training in both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Second, it should include some level of generic skills training of the type outlined in the previous paragraph. Third, it should include a period in which a plan for the PhD project is developed and in which an academic piece is written that could form part of the longer PhD. This plan should form the basis of an assessment as to whether the candidate can continue to the full PhD. This process could take the form of a four-year undergraduate program (including the honours year) and a four-year PhD program. It could also take the more usual form, in the internationally recognised pattern of the Bologna Accords, of a three-year undergraduate program, with a two-year master's, and a three-year PhD; or even a four-year undergraduate program with a one-year master's and a three-year PhD. Clearly any structure would need to be agreed with the public funding bodies, but our proposal would be that the University should meet the additional cost of the six-month gap between the duration of the currently available public funding for the PhD and our four-year program, however constructed. It is also essential that any structure devised creates several exit points at which students who decide not to continue to the end of the PhD can submit work for a master's or other qualification. We believe that this type of radical reconsideration of the PhD program is essential if the Sydney degree is to be truly portable internationally, and to provide adequate research training. It should be a priority for the planning period and for our discussions with the federal government through the 'compacts' process.
Enhancing standards for research training and candidature management
Whichever structure we adopt for the PhD, the core question also remains of the standards that we set for research training, standards that acknowledge disciplinary differences and yet provide research students and their supervisors with clear expectations and consistency of standards at a high level. These standards would inevitably relate both to candidature management and also to the management of research training practices. A majority of the universities in the Group of Eight have a graduate school as, in part, an answer to these issues, though we do not. Over the years there have been widely differing views on whether the University should establish a graduate school or not, and indeed little consensus about what is meant by a graduate school and an appropriate scope for its activities.
As for candidature management and research support, in some faculties the quality of these services is excellent but this is not the case everywhere. Moreover, while faculties such as Arts, Medicine and Science have very large numbers of doctoral students, there are some faculties with only small student numbers. There are considerable inefficiencies thrown up by these differences, and it might be argued that students are disadvantaged by the absence of any central processes for the monitoring of PhD candidature, even though, ironically, the PhD is the only University award (all other degrees are awarded through faculty boards). Whether we talk about a graduate school, or a more limited graduate office (though in any case with greater scope than the current Graduate Studies Office), there are strong academic, quality, and practical arguments in favour of some sort of central function with regard to the management of applications, monitoring of student progress, and management of the thesis submission and examination process. This would in no way undermine the central academic function of the supervision of students, but it would ensure greater consistency and efficiency across the University (again recognising that there are examples where this is currently excellently managed by particular faculties) with regard to administrative procedures and the institutional responsibility for quality assurance. Moreover, as suggested in Chapter 3, centralising these services could result in significant cost savings for the University, as well as improving the quality of service for some students. We propose that the establishment of a University-wide Graduate Office be considered as a matter of priority for the University.
The management of research training practices raises similar issues as those relating to candidature management. Again there may be some oversight and quality assurance issues that would be managed centrally, but the academic expertise in respect of research training is not generic across all disciplines and is clearly best developed and delivered at the disciplinary level, though cooperation across cognate disciplines also clearly has its merits. Where the University as a whole does have a role, through the Academic Board and the Research Training Committee of the Senior Executive Group, is in respect of setting policies and standards for doctoral education and establishing mechanisms to support their implementation and quality assurance at the relevant disciplinary levels. In addition, again through its governance structures, the University has responsibility for the very difficult issue of student entitlements (for example, policies on access to resources, including study space and infrastructure needs, as well as in setting minimum supervisory standards and expectations). In these respects there is a case for the implementation of policy being overseen and supported through a centralised reporting and quality assurance process (a graduate office) but key implementation responsibilities are most appropriately exercised by the academic unit most closely engaged in supporting the actual research being undertaken by the student. A program of coordination in relation to student entitlements could effectively raise the level of provision across the University. In particular, we propose that the University, through the Research Training Committee, should at least require individual faculties to report on student entitlement to resources within the faculty and minimum expectations, appropriate to the discipline, in relation to such matters as student contact time with supervisors and feedback. The Research Training Committee should have a responsibility for setting minimum standards in relation to both resources and supervision practices across the University. It should maintain those standards on an ongoing basis with each of the faculties. Finally the Research Training Committee could help coordinate possibilities for cross-disciplinary research-student interactions of the type outlined in Chapter 6.
International students are an important part of our community. Unfortunately in the Australian higher education system the recruitment of international students has too often been seen in terms of the financial benefits to institutions rather than in terms of the ways in which an international and multicultural university system enriches the learning experience of all students. Not only has too little been done to support the participation of international students in the academic and co-curricular life of universities but they have often been seen as presenting universities with a series of ‘problems’, as not adapting to ‘our way of doing things’ or as having learning difficulties because they have a language background other than English.
Our own aspirations as an international university demarcate us very clearly from such superficial, ill-informed and sometimes prejudiced views of international students and their contribution and needs. That does not mean we can be complacent. A report commissioned from Professor Deryck Schreuder as part of a Work Slate project on international student support services, points to the need to be much more systematic in our support for participation of international students (see Appendix 13). Innovation is confined to specific areas of excellence. Best practice is isolated and other parts of the University are unaware of what breakthroughs have been made elsewhere in the University that may be a direct benefit to them. For instance, we need to address the issue of whether we engage sufficiently effectively in our teaching with the life experiences of all our students. Learning is all about engagement with and through experience. It follows that we cannot expect the best learning outcomes for our international students unless we develop curricula and teaching approaches that are sensitive and relevant to their life experiences. Similarly, our support systems, both academic and welfare, need to be comprehensive and systematic in assisting students through what for many will be a strange and daunting transition. The broader project of which the report is part is therefore addressing the issue of changes to the culture of our learning community and finding structures for engaging with the experience of international students so as to maximise the benefit to all our students of belonging to a truly international university.
As a part of this approach, the report sets out a new ‘architecture’ for international student support. In particular, the report recommends the mainstreaming of all international student services within the portfolio of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) alongside other student services. The Schreuder report also sets out 14 specific goals for better servicing the needs of international students. Finally, the report suggests the creation of an “International Programs Committee to implement and oversight these reforms across the University”, reporting to the Senior Executive Group. The Schreuder recommendations in relation to the mainstreaming of student services and the establishment of the International Programs Committee should be implemented immediately. Its goals for better servicing the needs of international students should be considered by the International Programs Committee and, where possible, achieved over the planning period. The work that we are undertaking in increasing our stock of available student accommodation is obviously also critical in better serving the needs of this constituency.
There is clear evidence of a systemic problem in Indigenous participation in higher education. While this problem may require some similar strategies to the increased participation of other under-represented groups, we regard it as an importantly distinct issue. The situation of Indigenous students is not akin to that of other under-represented groups. Australia's Indigenous peoples are first nations peoples with a proud history and distinct knowledge traditions. The University of Sydney sits on the traditional lands of the Cadigal people, on land that was never ceded. This Aboriginal heritage is a significant part of the identity of the University, its history and its continuing role within the community. Yet the Indigenous peoples of Australia have been systematically disadvantaged and discriminated against since European settlement. These disadvantages are not easily overcome within our society but the University does have a responsibility to play its part in challenging the consequences of our past and contributing to the future. Education is an important dimension of this reconciliation and an Indigenous education strategy must be all-encompassing in its penetration of University life and culture. This is the critical challenge that we face and unless we take it on, we shall never understand what it means to be a specifically Australian university.
The question is how to address this challenge. In 2008 the University commissioned a review of its activities in the sphere of Indigenous education. This review was carried out by a team of three prominent Indigenous leaders from universities around Australia (see Appendix 14). The report presented by the review team acknowledged the excellent work being undertaken by the University's Koori Centre and Indigenous and non-Indigenous academic and professional staff both in supporting the recruitment, retention and outcomes of Indigenous students and in supporting Indigenous researchers and Indigenous research. For instance, one new initiative that is about to be launched arises through collaboration between the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and the Koori Centre. A Director of Indigenous Research Development will be appointed to support Indigenous research and researchers, including research students, to build capacity in Indigenous research. This initiative will be further supported by the creation of new University scholarships for Indigenous research students and the development over the early stages of the planning period of a comprehensive strategy to support Indigenous researchers.
The Indigenous Education Review highlighted the important position of the University as Australia's first university (and indeed that of Australia's first Indigenous graduate, Dr Charles Perkins) in setting both an example and a benchmark for the Australian university sector. This does not mean that we have achieved this outcome. Indeed our honest assessment is that we still have a long way to go, but the principle is an important one and not just symbolically. The recommendations of the review team will need serious consideration by the University community.
A central recommendation of the review relates to appropriate leadership for Indigenous issues within the University. The review proposes the creation of the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Education). Whether or not this particular proposal is accepted within the University, it is clear that there is a need for senior leadership on Indigenous issues, reporting direct to the Vice-Chancellor and with responsibility not only for ensuring that the University meets the particular needs of our Indigenous students, but that we develop a coherent approach to the Indigenous education of non-Indigenous students as well. Apart from this recommendation, the review's recommendations divide into some that can be implemented immediately and some that are dependent upon a decision as to appropriate leadership, or would best be left for the input of the person undertaking that role. It is our proposal that such recommendations of the review as can be implemented immediately should be, and that a decision on the issue of leadership should be taken during the period of consultation around this Green Paper. In addition, we believe that the development of a more effective engagement with our local Indigenous community is essential to help us establish the University as one in which Indigenous culture is appropriately recognised.
In our staff consultation, the claim with which there was least disagreement from respondents related to the importance of a student's experience of the University outside the classroom and its impact on their overall education. Four aspects of that experience merit particular attention. They are: (i) the student's experience of dealing with the administrative services of the University and the extent to which they feel adequately supported by those services, (ii) the student's experience of co-curricular activities and campus life, (iii) the provision of generic skills training outside the classroom, and (iv) the possibility of creating structures for belonging in the University community that are not dependent upon either an academic program or a particular interest group (the idea of 'virtual' colleges). Each of these should be considered in turn.
The student's experience of administrative services
One aspect of the student's experience of the University that often attracts comment is the comparative difficulty of performing the relatively routine administrative tasks associated with degree candidature, tasks such as enrolling in courses. This difficulty, coupled with the complexities of navigating the requirements of different faculties outlined in the first section of this chapter, can lead to a sense of alienation from the University.
A major initiative currently being undertaken by the University seeks in part to address this problem. This is the introduction of a new student lifecycle management system, Sydney Student. This may seem to be a fairly technical project with some possible efficiencies for students as well as professional and academic staff. In fact the project is a significant investment in the student experience. As the project rolls out with a new admissions process in 2011, online enrolments in 2012, and continuing changes to procedures and process in 2013, the relationship of the student to University systems will undergo radical change. Most importantly, the system will be student-focused, rather than system-focused, and will allow students to undertake many administrative procedures relating to their candidature in a direct interface with the online system. Not only will this significantly enhance the quality of information flow between the student and the University (in both directions) and allow the student greater control over their own candidature, it will also have important implications for the ways in which we organise our student services and structure information to the student about our academic curriculum. It will also create new career and development opportunities for student administration professionals through a greater emphasis upon customer service rather than on transactional processes. In its own right Sydney Student will change nothing. All these decisions are ones that the University and its staff and students will make through the consultations and change processes that are now being initiated. However, the fact that we are changing our student administrative system opens up many possibilities for thinking about the student experience and the organisation of our services and programs of study. The introduction of the Sydney Student system will be one of the major strategic activities of the University during the planning period.
The student's experience of campus life and student support services
In general, our educational environment, with a very active clubs and societies program, lively cultural life, excellent sporting facilities and student support services in such areas as legal advice, financial aid, health, welfare and counselling, is widely acknowledged as the finest in the country. For the last three years in a row the National Union of Students has ranked the University's student experience as the best in Australia. According to a recent survey of students concerning their choice of university, three-quarters said that the quality of campus life was a factor in their choice of the University of Sydney. Two-thirds of students were interested in becoming involved in co-curricular activities (see Appendix 15). In addition, for some students the independent residential colleges located adjacent to campus and the University-operated International House offer not only an enriching social and cultural environment, but also much appreciated educational support and pastoral care.
Nevertheless, there are genuine challenges in sustaining, and increasing participation in, this co-curricular environment. There are a number of Work Slate projects to consider these challenges, and how we might work to enhance further the student experience. These include projects on assessing the current provision of co-curricular activities at the University and suggesting improvements, and on the social, catering and accommodation facilities available to students. We propose that a project on the coordination of pastoral care facilities should also be initiated later in 2010.
The University of Sydney is still, substantially, a non-residential university. Thus some students cannot be as involved in University life as they might like. This problem is exacerbated by the realities of life for many students. Student income support in Australia falls short of real need and Sydney is an expensive city in which to live. Thus a very high proportion of students, even full-time students, have to engage in paid employment. These are facts of life for many of today's students but that actually makes good services even more important. So the requirements for a non-residential university to sustain a vibrant extracurricular environment are, paradoxically, more important than for small campuses where most students are in residence. Moreover, while our students generally have a broader network of support available to them than students on a small residential campus, the issue of the extent of the University's obligation to provide pastoral care services for students remains a live issue.
In achieving the goals of increased participation in student life and appropriate support services for students, the University must work in close partnership with the student organisations. The student organisations have a long played a major role in campus life and in the co-curricular experience of student life. They are a valuable and valued part of the University. Yet a major challenge to sustaining a high-quality campus experience has been the 2006 decision of the Australian parliament preventing Australian universities from levying a charge on all students to support services offered through student organisations (the 'VSU' legislation). Voluntary student unionism remains, despite federal government support for the principle of allowing a limited service charge, because the government lacks support in the Senate for this reform. Thus the costs of funding co-curricular services and facilities continues to fall onto universities without any corresponding increase in overall funding allocations to compensate them.
In this context the University of Sydney has undertaken, since the VSU legislation, to invest significant funds (around $9 million a year) to help support student organisations and the services they provide, as well as related services in the areas of health, welfare and counselling. This is a heavy commitment and a significant cross-subsidy from other budget areas. The University is firmly committed to enhancing the student experience through funding co-curricular activities, services and facilities. It is also committed to the principle that student activities, and at least some student support services, should be student-led. However we will need to continue to work closely with the student organisations to ensure value for money from the University's investment in these aspects of the student experience.
It is certainly the case that the University of Sydney Union (USU) in particular has borne the brunt of the cuts to funding of its activities. At the time of the VSU legislation, the University reached an agreement with the USU, an independent organisation, under which the union's commercial activities in food, beverage and retail services were expected eventually to fund its crucial work in the student organisations and events. However, the sustainability of these services has proved possible only with extensive University support, both directly and in the form of shared services. In particular, the USU carries a burden in respect of the maintenance and refurbishment of the buildings it occupies; costs which are now transferred directly to the University. Thus, the commercial operations of the union, though not unsuccessful in their own right, do not provide the income necessary to cover the costs of these wider and perhaps more fundamental aspects of its core mission. And notwithstanding the success or otherwise of the USU's commercial activities as a source of funds for student activities and events, the University recognises a more general obligation of its own to provide appropriate social and catering facilities on its various campuses for its students, staff and visitors. We are therefore working closely with the USU towards a new memorandum of understanding which will provide a sustainable basis for their ongoing funding, but which will shift responsibility for food and beverage and retail outlets to the University.
Three questions facing the University in this area therefore concern: (i) the range of services provided by student organisations that it is appropriate for the University to cross-subsidise, (ii) the checks and balances needed to allow the University to evaluate the value for money that these services provide for students while allowing the organisations to exercise an appropriate level of independence in line with their traditional roles, and (iii) the appropriate level and coordination of support services provided to students. It is our proposal that the ongoing work surrounding these issues be continued through the planning period, and that, in the short term (pending breaking of the parliamentary deadlock), the University identifies a defined proportion of its student fee income that should be committed to these activities each year throughout the planning period.
Skills training outside the classroom
Given that many students today need to be engaged in part-time work, the University is keen to see that their paid employment should add to their overall educational experience. One strategy that the University has adopted to provide students with opportunities for work-based learning has been to set up SydneyTalent as a pilot program in supported workplace experience. Building on the University's graduate attributes and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations' Employability Skills frameworks, SydneyTalent has identified 12 competencies that describe effective and desirable workplace behaviours and form a foundation from which students can evaluate their performance in the workplace. SydneyTalent has quickly established a reputation among employers and students in adding value to the mainstream curricular activity of the University. However, despite its early success, SydneyTalent faces a number of challenges. These are, first, how we expand the operation of SydneyTalent in a cost-effective way that can provide opportunities for all students who wish to take advantage of these opportunities; and, second, how we more effectively position SydneyTalent within the mainstream activity of the University, especially in relation to the student lifecycle as a whole (including the very successful work of the University Careers Service), and integrate it more effectively into the broad extracurricular experience of University education. The oversight of SydneyTalent has recently been moved to the portfolio of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), and it is proposed that SydneyTalent be encouraged to focus on meeting these two related challenges during the planning period.
The student organisations, along with the independent colleges, play a very important role in University life. However, only a minority of students are able to experience the residential life of the University and, with the many external commitments that students have to manage, not all feel able to participate in University clubs and societies. The University therefore faces the challenge of extending to all students the spirit of belonging to a community that has been one of the very successful outcomes of the college system and of the USU and Sports Union.
One way of doing so that has been successfully introduced in some universities would be to establish a system of 'virtual colleges'. All students would be enrolled in one of a number of virtual colleges supported by a network of tutors including academic staff, professional staff and research students. Each college would have a tutorial system intended to provide support for every student independently of the academic units. Personal tutors who would be senior members of the college would be there to assist and guide students. Students in each tutor group would come from different faculties and mix domestic and international students. Tutors would be encouraged to meet regularly with their tutees to discuss their experience of the University, and students encouraged to maintain contact with their tutors. Each of the colleges would organise events and activities to support the involvement of students in the life of the college but these activities would be managed within the college itself.
The establishment of such colleges would, however, not be without cost, and it is our proposal that we should, during the planning period, establish the extent to which such a system would find support among University staff and students and its attendant benefits and costs.
When a student graduates, it is important that they identify a continuing connection with the University and that they remain, in one sense or another, a member of a lifelong learning community. The development and maintenance of that community is an important part of our commitment to education for the ‘benefit of Australia and the wider world’.
The lifelong learning community of the University is not exclusive to our graduates: we recognise a responsibility to provide more general community, continuing and professional education, and to contribute to the cultural life of our city. Thus our Centre for Continuing Education had over 14,000 enrolments in 2009. Efforts are underway to coordinate better the offerings of the Centre for Continuing Education and the offerings of our faculties in continuing and professional education. Our very successful Sydney Ideas program of lectures attracted audiences of 5500 in 2009 and was only part of a wide suite of public education organised through faculties and the museums. Our museums alone attracted 78,000 visitors to their exhibitions, and 17,800 to their public and schools programs. Contribution by staff to public debate is also part of our commitment to community education. Statistics on media appearances and mentions of universities in the past 12 months indicate that the University is now one of two leading institutions in the country for public commentary. Our sponsorship of the Sydney Festival is a recent expression of our commitment to better community engagement. Our Gold Sponsorship of the Australian Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is an indication that we regard our community as global, as well as local. We are building an ever-stronger educational community that extends well beyond the walls of the University.
Our alumni clearly form an important part of this extended community. We have been making efforts, in particular over the last five years, to build stronger links between our alumni and the current activities and students of the University. Individual alumni are being recruited as advisers in areas of expertise, a growth plan for alumni chapters is underway; the revamped Sydney Alumni Magazine is receiving widespread endorsement and electronic communications form a solid base for news updates about the University’s achievements and opportunities to engage. A ‘whole of life’ student-alumni program has been developed, including an innovative online networking community, alumni-student mentoring program and alumni families support to new international students. Our Alumni Awards Program has grown in prestige, and a strong alumni reunions program underpins an extensive events calendar, both in Australia and overseas.
This commitment to lifelong learning and membership of an ongoing community is increasingly a part of our educational offering. It fits well with our commitment to the benefit of Australia and the wider world, and can increase the opportunities available to our current students. In addition, it retains for the University the advice, support and advocacy of a wide network of friends within Australia and abroad. It is for this reason that a strategic priority should be the ongoing development of our alumni and public education work.
It can be seen from the preceding eight sections of this chapter that the University has a clear sense of its educational mission from the arrival of its students and throughout their lives as alumni. It also has a clear sense of the priorities that we must address to achieve that mission. The University undoubtedly provides an excellent educational environment and our graduates have a proud tradition of making outstanding contributions to our society. Nevertheless, all the evidence indicates that the University can do better with respect to its fundamental roles in learning and teaching and research training. There are undoubtedly significant obstacles to overcome, particularly in relation to infrastructure, but of more concern is that our performance in learning and teaching is patchy – good in parts but not consistent across the institution. We need to do a lot more with respect to valuing and supporting teaching and ensuring that best practice in this area is adopted more widely and consistently. A critical issue will be fostering a culture within the University that aspires towards higher levels of achievement in learning and teaching and rewards staff for outstanding achievements in teaching. We need to ensure that we are able to identify students of promise and then offer them outstanding educational opportunities in whichever program they choose. We need to ensure that those opportunities continue even after graduation. Some of the proposals we discuss in Chapter 4 with respect to the academic organisation of the University provide a good platform for achieving these goals. But we have to capitalise on the potential of this platform through a sustained commitment to re-examining everything we do with regard to learning and teaching to ensure that our practices accord with our aspirations.