Next Steps, the report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education (ITE) Review was released on 24 February 2022.
The report contains 17 recommendations addressing issues ranging from raising the status of teaching and attracting high-quality candidates to ensuring that ITE programs are high-quality, evidence-based, and practically relevant. However, the Government’s immediate response focused on strengthening the link between ITE and funding for providers (recommendation 15).
The Government has announced the establishment of an ITE Quality Assessment Expert Panel to develop excellence thresholds and advise on linking these to funding incentives. The detail of any funding changes will depend on this work. This FlagPost provides an overview of the elements of the higher education funding framework currently in place that could be used to implement changes to ITE provider funding.
There are currently more than 300 accredited ITE programs (live list, updated regularly) operating in Australia across 48 higher education providers, mostly universities. In 2020, approximately 89,038 students were enrolled in these courses at all levels. The Australian National University, Torrens University Australia, and Bond University were the only universities with no ITE enrolments in 2020.
ITE policy under the Coalition
Improving the quality of ITE has been a feature of the Coalition’s school education policy since it came to government in 2013.
In 2014, then Minister for Education Christopher Pyne established the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG). Its report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers led to changes in ITE course accreditation, assessment of teaching performance, ITE student selection, support for graduate teachers and requirements for ITE graduates’ literacy and numeracy skills.
However, in a speech to the Menzies Research Centre in March 2021, then Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge argued that Australia was still not living up to the ambition of providing ‘a world class education system’ as set out in the 2019 Alice Springs (Mpartnwe) Education Declaration. Citing Australia’s declining performance in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since 2000, Mr Tudge set a goal for Australia to again be among the top nations in the domains of reading, maths and science by 2030.
He argued that one of the Australian Government’s main policy levers was university funding for ITE courses, and announced a review of ITE, launching the review, its Terms of Reference and Expert Panel on 15 April 2021.
Higher education funding—implementation considerations
An estimated (p. 119) $18.1 billion dollars of Australian Government funding for higher education will be provided under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA) in 2021–22, the largest components being for student loans and course fee subsidies. For the most part, the distribution of this course funding is based on student and provider choice, with little Government intervention beyond provider-level funding caps.
However, in his response to the review, Acting Minister for Education and Youth Stuart Robert cited the approximately $760 million of Government funding for ITE, and expressed concern that some providers were not adequately equipping graduates for the classroom.
Although this funding is not currently linked to ITE course quality outcomes, two key features of the current higher education funding framework could be readily used for this purpose.
Firstly, university-level (rather than discipline or course-level) performance-based funding has been in place since 2020, with amounts worked out in accordance with the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines (paragraph 33-1(b)(v) of HESA). Although there is some uncertainty about the current approach, these performance funding arrangements could be amended to, for example, reward providers for achieving quality improvements.
Alternatively, section 30-12 of HESA could be used to make a determination that ITE courses are ‘designated courses’, which would allow the Minister to specifically allocate places to universities in much the same way as medical places currently are in higher education providers’ funding agreements.
However, while the expediency of these readily available mechanisms could be appealing, this does not necessarily mean they will be recommended by the Expert Panel or adopted by the Government.
Stakeholder response and concluding comments
Although some stakeholders were critical when the review was first announced on the basis that numerous previous reviews had covered similar ground, director of FIVE from FIVE Dr Jennifer Buckingham has noted that the report’s focus on provider accountability for the quality of ITE distinguishes it from its predecessors. Despite this, there is no consensus about how effective changes to provider funding are likely to be in improving outcomes for Australian school students.
Other responses to the report have highlighted complexities around improving the status of teachers, teacher pay and incentives, attracting and retaining high-quality candidates, and potential unintended consequences for universities and the workforce.
More recently, there have been vociferous responses to comments by Mr Robert in which he attributed poor student performance to poor teachers (‘the bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers’), particularly in government schools. In addition to disputing the accuracy of the comments, experts have argued that they neglect the system-level factors which the Australian Government could take leadership on, such as educational equity, accountability for and monitoring of educational goals, and a national teacher recruitment, retention, and allocation policy.
Nonetheless, the review raises important questions about the extent to which a more interventionist approach to higher education funding could be implemented to improve student performance in schools.