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Another promise broken - Office of Learning and Teaching to lose funding

More broken promises, this time affecting thousands of students at university.

More broken promises, this time affecting thousands of students at university.

Tony Abbott was famous for breaking promises. By the time he got the chop, there were, by some accounts, more than 450 broken promises (the ACTU's Sally McManus), or maybe 85 broken promises (Independent Australia). The ABC's Promise Tracker website, always moderate, claims that, as of Monday, looking at the 78 promises made before the 2013 election, 16 are broken, six are stalled and 39 are in progress.

Here's another broken promise coming up, not on anyone's list so far.

Before Abbott came to power, he said there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health. The current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has done nothing to repair those cuts.

The Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) is a tiny engine with a huge pull. Its funding runs out on June 30. It funds inspiration in university classrooms across the nation. It helps good teachers be better and, more importantly, helps education have more impact on the students who arrive at universities.

The reason a huge number of kids don't just drop out in the first semester of university, in a panic about why they are there and how to become independent? That was the work of Sally Kift, once an Office of Learning and Teaching Fellow.

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The OLT is the real manufacturer of the ideas boom. And all that is about to end on June 30. Christopher Pyne's 2015 plan to replace the OLT with a university-based institute was meant to start on July 1. No applications have gone out, no tender processes released. Nothing.

Last year's budget papers showed spending on the proposed institute falling from a projected $14 million in 2015 to $12 million this year, then just $8 million in both 2017 and 2018. In comparison, the OLT received $57 million across three years. But now, no tenders, no process, no spending, no way to seed the ideas boom in teaching here. Now that Pyne has been replaced by Simon Birmingham, whose entire focus appears to be on research, the tiny OLT engine looks to be in a shed, decommissioned, ignored. Birmingham is all in praise of research at universities, but universities have two jobs.

For those of you who have been swept away by the Turnbull government's innovation rhetoric, remember this: every single researcher with one of those prestigious grants from the Australian Research Council or the National Health and Medical Research Council had a teacher who made that possible. Good research springs from good teaching.

Meet Paul Glasziou. The NHMRC certainly has. He was the professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University before deciding to return to Australia to raise his kids. Now he is a part-time GP, a full-time professor of evidence-based medicine at Bond University and a senior principal research fellow at NHMRC. So the full bottle on the research dollars after which university hierarchies lust.

Yet, in 2012, he and a team were granted $49,000 to save lives all over Australia. And where did that money come from? The Office of Learning and Teaching. Glasziou and his teammates, Dragan Ilic, Elmer Villanueva, Rusli Bin Nordin and Julie Tilson, investigated what was the best possible way for medical schools to teach evidence-based medicine to medical students (that's the class where they learn to choose the best possible treatment for whatever ails you based on "epidemiology, biostatistics and information literacy").

Glasziou says: "It seems extremely short sighted to me considering the amount of money involved, investing a few million a year to find out how to do teaching better is trivial compared to the NHMRC, which is roughly a billion a year and trivial compared to the spending on the ARC (the other major research funds generator in Australia)."

A trivial amount of money when you consider the significance of the work done.

What do other brilliant researchers say about the loss of the Office of Learning and Teaching?

Peter Doherty, Nobel prize winner for medicine, says: "The provision of a relatively small amount of funding that allows university teachers to be aware of innovative approaches that are being tried (or considered) elsewhere and, perhaps, to adapt and improve such innovations for local application would seem to be a worthwhile investment for Australia.

"The withdrawal of such support seems short sighted."

And Doherty's not the only Nobel Prize winner who thinks we should save the OLT.
Brian Schmidt, who won his Nobel in 2011 and is now the vice-chancellor of ANU, says: "The OLT is a small government investment that underpins the $19B Higher education export industry -  it is the only investment we have for teaching innovation in higher education, and represents exceedingly good value for the nation."
 

Margaret Gardner, the vice-chancellor of Monash University, despairs.

She says Australia is an international leader in innovation in learning, teaching and education.

"To the best of my knowledge, there has been no communication to the sector about that [2015] budget announcement. The OLT ceases functioning at the end of June, as an office."

She points out four key areas:

1. The OLT functions to reward good teaching. No one else does that at a federal level.

2. The OLT funds innovation in learning and teaching. It is as tough to get those grants as it is to get an ARC or NHMRC grant.

3. It funds fellowships, which are like hit squads to make big changes in university teaching and learning.

4. It develops strategic papers to give insight into key areas.

There are a million Australians at university. And funding for the OLT every year costs a handful of dollars for each one.

It helps our doctors be better doctors and our students be better students.

And all for what? To save a government a few million dollars a year.

If this government really wants an ideas boom, it needs to spend the money where the ideas start and stop breaking promises. No cuts to education? This certainly looks like one.

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