I’ve been spending some time on the new Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website, which launched just last week and represents the first Australian website of its kind. Drawing on several years’ worth of student feedback data obtained through instruments such as the University Experience Survey (UES), the site allows users to compare and contrast the ratings of Australian universities on a range of criteria and with respect to specific programs. While overrelliance on the data is something to be avoided (the data are not without reliability, consistency and sampling issues), I think this is really interesting step forward.
In the age that will no doubt herald further casualisation, funding cuts, fee deregulation and the very real likelihood of the $100K degree, students and the wider community absolutely must take an active role in putting pressure on universities to be accountable and deliver high quality teaching. Being informed consumers is integral to this. Personally, I think this requires a shift in mindset, where the wider community recognises and leverages the increasing competition between universities. Prospective students need to see that universities are now competing for the dollars that undergraduate enrolments bring as well as the gains in reputation and prestige that high calibre undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments bring. We’re now so far beyond the age of free and generously subsidised education; if it’s going to be “user-pays,” then the user has a right to expect quality.
In my area – Education – some very interesting patterns and themes emerge when you compare and contrast some of the big players, our so-called “ivy leagues” with the smaller, sometimes labeled “teaching-focused” universities. If you’re an undergraduate looking to train as a teacher, what kind of university might serve you best? For example, is it better to go to a smaller university known for pastoral care, small class sizes and lecturers who know your name – or would you prefer a large urban university with excellence in research, substantial resources and a well-recognised degree? In undergraduate teacher training programs, the following comparison suggests that the smaller players have something to offer over larger ones.
While it might be easy to see that the smaller universities shown here appear to be rated more highly in terms of overall experience, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they represent a better choice. Ideally, the modern academy needs high quality research to inform practice, so when the nexus between these two areas is strong, it’s fair to say that research can play an important role in enhancing the quality of teaching. That said, as many of us know, not all university teachers are trained in teaching – so the range of pedagogical strategies they employ is sometimes very limited (do direct instruction, lecturing and the odd discussion come to mind?). Looking at student support provides some further indications, but even here we can see that the smaller universities are reportedly doing a better job.
While it sounds easy enough to say that we should therefore choose a university that’s strong on teaching, the jobs marketplace is highly competitive, even in the area of education where many point to an oversupply of graduates. In this context, academy reputation – often predicated on research – is arguably an important component in landing the right job. Still, in my area, the metrics on full-time employment in teaching suggests that the small players have a lot to offer.
When we compare small with large, it seems that smaller teaching focused universities are performing well in terms of teacher quality, student support and employment. If you’re training to be a teacher, perhaps the data would suggest that it’s better to pick a smaller university?
Of course, it’s universities – both large and small – that are now competing for students. Larger universities need to be prepared to learn lessons from data such as these. The core business of education is relationship building. Having studied and worked in a range of education settings, I would argue that smaller class sizes, pastoral care, student support and good pedagogy are all highly valued by students. Perhaps the story that these data really tell is that larger universities – with their resources and research traditions – can learn from smaller ones and use evidence-based practice to build the nexus between research excellence and quality teaching and learning. We should be using websites like these to spark the conversation.
Word to the wise – always check the size of the sample when looking at responses. The rule of thumb: the larger the sample, the more accurate the data. Mousing over each bar shows you the size, e.g.