2015 Teaching and Learning Forum – Too many students not enough Skill

t and l

Last month I attended the Western Australian Teaching and Learning Forum. The Forum was the final stop in my experience as a UWA Postgraduate Teaching Intern.

The keynote presentation at the Forum, delivered by Deborah Terry from Curtin University, eloquently summarised all the challenges traditional universities face in the coming years, from reduced government funding, to increased competition for students, and challenges associated with student expectations on the use of technology and flexibility of delivery. Furthermore, tertiary students are now more varied than ever before, with increasing numbers of international, first-in-family, disadvantaged and reduced capacity students, all of who deserve to be given a meaningful educational experience.

But I couldn’t help but wonder how the education system might be exacerbating these issues as a result of their own intake policies. An increase in the number of university places available, combined with a stable number of incoming students, has seen the entry-level ATAR (year twelve ranking of individual students) reduced for many courses. While there are societal benefits to reduced entry-level ranking requirements, including that people from disadvantaged backgrounds may be more likely to have access to a university place, there is the coincident problem that students with reduced capabilities are being accepted into courses that they might not be able to complete.

The Conversation released an article earlier in January indicating that this is apparently the case, with increasing attrition rates in many courses. With federal funding still associated with positions, bureaucrats are wondering what universities will do to ensure that all students accepted into a course have the capacity to complete that course. From a basic point of view, it seems to me there are really only two ways these students can complete – the course content is made simpler so more students can gain better grades, or the marking system is amended to ensure more students finish courses ‘above the line’.

In both cases this may mean the minimum capabilities of students when they graduate is reduced, and this should be a frightening prospect for students, employers and the university. Students might not be learning the skills they need to survive in the workplace, employers might be contracting employees who are incapable of performing in a position, and the university might develop a reputation for pumping out substandard graduates.

Unfortunately, I believe this may already be the case. I spoke recently to a senior management engineer in Rio Tinto who confirmed that he no longer employs graduates from Australian universities for computer modelling or maths-based work, finding that they were under skilled and lacking in confidence. Alternatively, graduates from some Asian universities had higher levels of science and maths proficiency.

Ideally, of course, there would be a third option for reducing attrition rates, that the education system is improved to the extent that lower-ranking students ‘catch up’ to their higher achieving counterparts. While this no doubt happens in some cases it is not a foolproof model for reducing failure rates. This is particularly the case considering the quality of teaching at UWA is being questioned.

UWA prides itself on being a ‘Top 100’ world ranked university, and yet the University has been receiving poor teaching ratings of late. The Australian Good Universities guide found that UWA students rated UWA highly for its ability to get graduates well-paid positions and for providing lower student to staff ratios, however UWA was allocated only one star for teaching quality. UWA has the highest ATAR entrance rate (an average of 80 compared with 70 or below) and the highest average cost per student, when compared to other WA universities. In this case paying more and ‘starting smarter’ may be influencing students’ judgement of UWA, but the question still remains as to whether UWA is going to be able to provide a quality education for all students, an education that meets their minimum expectations and also provides them with the skills and knowledge they require in the workplace.

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