ALTC A Cut That Smarts


Recently, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced budget cuts to support flood rebuilding programs. These budget cuts included an $88 million slice — to be administered over a period of four years — from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC). As a result, the ALTC will cease all operations from January 2012.

The ALTC was formed mid-2008 by the Rudd government as just one component of the so-called "education revolution". The predecessor of the ALTC was the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, named after Sir John Carrick AC, the former federal education minister. This institute was established by the Howard government in August 2004 for the enhancement of learning and teaching in higher education.

Over the past three years, the ALTC has carried out its commitment to improving the student learning experience by supporting teaching practice in higher education. The Council manages an awards program for excellent and innovative teaching as well as a competitive grants scheme to enhance student learning.

The concrete and symbolic support processes the ALTC provides extend well beyond awards and grants. Since its conception, the ALTC has produced "networks of knowledge" and facilitated opportunities for higher education institutions to collaborate in both research and the distribution of learning and teaching resources. The ALTC Exchange is one such strategy for disseminating learning and teaching resources which have been developed through the competitive grants scheme. In a relatively short period of time, the ALTC has built an extensive support system and community of practice for learning and teaching the higher education sector.

Gillard’s decision to effectively abolish the ALTC by eliminating its funding removes an invaluable enhancement and support system for learning and teaching across the sector. During Gillard’s 2007-10 stint as education minister, she released a statement entitled "Higher Education Revolution on track" which outlined various accomplishments in the sector, including the increase of student numbers. Investment in the scholarship of learning and teaching quality enhancement is central to improving the quality of the student learning experience for the growing intake in all higher education institutions.

Despite abolishing the ALTC, the Gillard Government declares that it "remains committed to continuing to improving the quality of higher education". The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the promised MyUniversity website have been held up as evidence of this commitment. TEQSA and MyUniversity were not established to reward or promote good teaching practice in higher education but rather, their explicit purpose is to control, evaluate and measure good teaching. Professor Steven Schwartz, VC of Macquarie University delivers this argument in a forthright fashion here.

TEQSA is often billed as the next iteration of the Australian University Quality Agency (AUQA), regulates university and non-university higher education providers, monitors quality and set standards. However, as Nick Irving and Rashmi Kumar argued last year in New Matilda, initiatives like TEQSA "will signal the demise of the self-accredited university in Australia".

And then there’s the MyUniversity website, which is apparently going to publish metrics pertaining to institutional audit and quality. This site is modeled on the MySchools website and is designed to help track and compare the performance of higher education institutions against each other. In view of the uproar and disillusion that followed the launch of the MySchools website, it’s hard to be optimistic about what MyUniversity has to offer.

If TEQSA and MyUniversity are the best the Gillard Government has got to demonstrate a commitment to the quality of learning and teaching in higher education, then that commitment looks pretty weak.

Another component of the education revolution is the Higher Education Performance Fund that was announced during the 2010 Universities Australia Conference. This fund was established to reward institutions that can demonstrate exceptional teaching — however the available funding equates to "just under $4 million per university". Considering the "…funding shortfalls reaching into the billions of dollars, this is hardly sufficient to address the crisis in higher education where it’s being felt — in classrooms’. The chronic underfunding which has beset the education revolution for the higher education sector was disappointing enough — and then the ALTC was cut.

Currently, "reversing the Government’s decision to abolish the ALTC" is ranked fourth on the Get Up campaign ideas forum and participants have left hundreds of comments against the decision. In the National Times, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young observed that plans to scrap the ALTC constituted "a surprising move from our ‘education Prime Minister’".

Ian McAuley recently cautioned against using the floods as an excuse to stop public investment. Slightly increasing the country’s debt is considered by many to be a smarter option than slashing government funding for public infrastructure and services. As Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union asks, "What is more important, a small deficit by international standards or investment in our country’s future?"

No one questions the importance of rebuilding after natural disasters — but the loss of the ALTC and its valuable role as champion, motivator and supporter of the scholarship of learning and teaching is a high price to pay.

And when all the figures are added up, the cutting the ALTC will deliver a saving of $22 million per annum — or a meagre 1.57 per cent of the $5.6 billion needed to rebuild flood-affected parts of Queensland.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.