TeachConnect.edu.au is up and running

After many years of research and planning, the TeachConnect website is up and running, with the first group of teachers engaged

TeachConnect is an altruistic network of pre-service, current and experienced teachers across Queensland. TeachConnect is a simple idea – a platform to let teachers talk to other teachers and to benefit from the experiences of others. Teachers tend to be generous in sharing their knowledge. TeachConnect is about making sure that this knowledge can be re-used by the whole community of Queensland teachers.

TeachConnect is a collaboration between many stakeholders to support beginning teachers in Queensland. It involves the Queensland College of Teachers (QCT), the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT), many universities in Queensland (USQ, QUT, CQU, USC, UQ, JCU and Griffith) and many other collaborators.

The list will continue to grow as it is a project founded upon inclusive collaboration – get in touch on teachconnect@outlook.com if you want to take part!

Whilst only certain whitelisted domains are allowed into the community for teachers, you can read more about TeachConnect on the website at http://www.teachconnect.edu.au

teachconnect
The front page of the TeachConnect site

References about TeachConnect

If you want to read more about TeachConnect then the following articles are a good place to start:

  • Clara M., Kelly N., Mauri T. and Danaher P. (In press). Challenges of teachers’ practice-oriented virtual communities for enabling reflection, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education
  • Kelly N., Reushle S., Chakrabarty S. and Kinnane A. (2014). Augmenting the support for pre-service teachers into practice through large online communities of knowledge-sharing, Australian Journal of Teacher Education 39(4), pp. 68-82 [link]
  • Kelly, N. (2013). An opportunity to support beginning teachers in the transition from higher education into practice, Proceedings of ASCILITE 2013, Sydney [link]
  • Kelly N, Clara M. and Kickbusch S. (2015) How to develop an online community for pre-service and early career teachers, ASCILITE 2015, Perth [link]

What we know about developing online communities of teachers

This post originally published to the ADFI blog:

Online communities are perhaps for the current decade (for which we still have no adequate name) what “Web 2.0″ was for the noughties. Web 2.0 spawned terms such as “prosumer” and “produser” amidst other various contorted contractions aimed at highlighting what was genuinely revolutionary – that users were no longer passive receivers of content but could rather contribute actively to sites that they visited.

Fast forwarding to the current decade (apparently the term ‘one-ders’ was the winner in an Australian competition to name it, but I can’t quite bring myself to use it) the equivalent advance is in the area of online communities. These days every site has a ‘social’ aspect and many have inherited values from Lave and Wenger’s Communities of Practice.

We can speculate that this has happened for a variety of reasons: the enormous uptake of smartphones for internet access anywhere (over 65% of people have them in Australia), combined with the increasing ubiquity of wireless broadband and the examples provided by the huge success of Facebook and its successors are potential candidates.

The point of this post is to write about online communities for teachers. Many other professions and groups have strong, functioning online communities that serve their needs but it is my belief that online communities of teachers still have a great deal of unrealised potential. In this short blog post I try to outline what is missing; what teacher needs are not being met by what is currently available.

Strong online communities

What does a strong, functioning online community look like? A good (if unscientific) heuristic is a well-known, single location that ‘most people’ within the community know about. For example, most IT professionals know that StackOverflow is ‘the place to go’ for any information or troubleshooting needed when programming. Or a more esoteric example: ‘most rock climbers’ know that The Crag is ‘the place to go’ for information about climbing around Australia.

These sites have gained their dominance through a combination of:

  1. Strongly customising the platform to meet user needs;
  2. Working passionately with an initial group of dedicated users to build a group culture;
  3. Spreading because they are fundamentally useful in a way that can be accessed minimal commitment (e.g. signup) or learning required.

None of these insights are particularly new – they can be read as a response to Clay Shirky’s established wisdom for developing online communities (Shirky, 2011). The following summary is drawn from a précis of the book here:

  • Start small – projects that depend on growth for success generally won’t
    grow;
  • Understand what will motivate users – we must design and build our systems
    and tools once we know WHY people will use it (e.g. intrinsic vs. extrinsic
    motivations);
  • Understand what opportunity you are providing –  we must grasp what is
    being provided and how it will be used;
  • Default to social – growth comes from sharing, and it’s the defaults that
    drive reinforcing behaviours (e.g. open vs. closed);
  • Vary participation – groups bring diversity, so we must enable all levels
    and types of user engagement – people need a low threshold to get started;
  • Enable self-governance – central governance doesn’t scale so help the
    community form and regulate its own rules and behaviours (but provide
    mediation where needed);
  • Tweak as you grow – listen to the community, be responsive and open to
    feedback.

Developing online communities for teachers

So, what is the significance of this for developing communities of teachers?

Firstly, what does a community of teachers need? A recent article by Clara, Kelly, Mauri and Danaher (In press) teases out the fundamental need for teachers, which is to be able to reflect upon practice, and this requires trusted relationships that can only be built over time; as well as privacy which is often hard to come by on large online communities.

An ongoing study by Kelly and Antonio looks at existing online communities of teachers in Facebook and early results are showing that most of the sharing going on is limited to developing relationships and advocating practical strategies – very little reflection, modelling of practice, or giving of feedback is occurring.

Given these needs for an online community of teachers, what is the current landscape of communities for teachers in Australia? It can be seen from this brief overview of current online communities that there is still a need to be filled:

  • Scootle community (attached to the Scootle website) has been well-funded and has the advantage of the well-known Scootle brand, but has very little genuine teacher activity on the site
  • Other well-funded community dedicated community teacher sites (such as PLANE for teacher learning pathways) have ceased to exist within years of launching due to low activity
  • Some states have highly-utilized platforms, such as The Learning Place in Queensland which successfully offers professional development and resources to teachers as well as features for community engagement. However, the community aspects are not heavily used for reflection or modelling of practice, potentially due to the public nature of the site and that ownership of data lies with the teachers’ employer (the state)
  • Many teachers use Facebook for small groups, and these groups do work to provide support, especially closed groups. However, membership is restricted and any knowledge that is generated or shared is lost. Further, each small network is set up anew, and none of the benefits of a large community are realised (although the space for reflection on practice is gained)
  • Many institutions have dedicated communities for pre-service teachers that can continue to be used after graduation. For example, the University of Southern Queensland has the “Education Commons” which is a Moodle-powered site. Whilst it is useful for resource sharing, there is a lack of practice sharing and no possibility of cross-institutional pollination.

With this understanding of the gap that remains, a group of academics from universities and teacher education providers across Queensland are working together to develop a community, “TeachConnect”, slated for launch in September.

TeachConnect

Developing on online community is not a science – after a survey of the literature on the subject one might conclude that the main rule is “try, adapt and try again”. TeachConnnect is the second attempt to develop a community following a pilot of a different platform. This pilot was an empirical demonstration of the above principles, and an evaluation showed that the community was:

  • Too difficult to sign up to
  • Too restrictive in interactions (with not enough opportunity for dialogue)
  • Too public and not enough trust (no private spaces for interaction)
  • Not enough community engagement
  • Some principles for the TeachConnect community in response to this are:
  • Make the user interface and sign-up entirely intuitive (as well as more beautiful)
  • Have two integrated spaces in the platform – public knowledge that can be reused and private ‘mentorship circles’ where reflection can occur
  • Spend months of time travelling and talking to the lecturers, pre-service teachers and teachers who will be using the platform to build the community piece by piece

There are no short cuts for building an online community, but there is hope from what we know of teachers, from looking at examples of communities in other professions and from trial and error that something genuinely useful for teachers can be arrived at.

A value proposition

To this point, the blog post has made an implicit assumption that having an online community of teachers is a worthwhile endeavour. To make this assumption more transparent, imagine a platform that was entirely dedicated to improving the teaching profession:

  • Independent, all data private, owned only by the members of the community. It’s whole appearance and design makes it clear that it’s only goal is to help teachers with their practice of teaching – perhaps it even has inspirational quotes from educational theorists in the banner.
  • Knowledge about the pragmatic affairs of teaching (where to find resources, how to get accredited, how to navigate schools) can be re-used and built up over time by the community. Trusted spaces allow for gradual development of relationships over time, facilitating reflection upon practice between peers and facilitated by experienced teachers.
  • All teachers have access to this, regardless of their school or status of employment – but it’s restricted to anyone that’s ever been a pre-service teacher. The platform helps teachers to connect to other teachers in similar situations (if I’m the only STEM teacher in a rural school I can perhaps find another teacher teacher in the same situation).
  • It’s quick and easy to use and I can start using it even before I go on my first practical experience as a pre-service teacher. I know that it’s “the place to go” and that I’m likely to find either the person that I need to talk to or the knowledge that I need there.

If you’re reading this and think you’ve got something to contribute, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

References

Clara M, Kelly N, Mauri T and Danaher P, In press, Can Massive Communities of Teachers facilitate collaborative reflection? Fractal design as a possible answer, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education

Kelly, N. (2013). An opportunity to support beginning teachers in the transition from higher education into practice. ASCILITE 2013, Macquarie University, Australia.

Kelly, N., Reushle, S., Chakrabarty, S., & Kinnane, A. (2014). Beginning Teacher Support in Australia: Towards an Online Community to Augment Current Support. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4), 4.

Shirky, Clay. (2010) Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin UK

Script for generate-and-explore demonstration

The Python script below provides a demonstration of generate and interpret.

This page has a link to it in a to-be-published journal paper explaining what it’s about (will be linked following publication).

For the time being, it is described as:

Generating:

Consider a simple system that generates numbers (after Kelly and Gero 2015). The system has two variables: firstly n, a range of numbers with constraints; and p designates an operator, one of multiplication, division, addition or subtraction. The system has an initial state, which for the sake of example we can take  to be constrained by 5<n<95 and p=+ the operator for addition.

The system generates by choosing two values for the variable  within constraints and performing the operation  on them to produce an artefact (the resulting number). For example, the system chooses first 6 and then 72 and adds them to produce an artefact of 78. With this setup the system clearly has a bounded space that it is ‘searching’ through generation and given enough time it would eventually ‘discover’ all possible artefacts in the space, i.e. {10,11,12,…,189,190}.

This extremely simple proposal is representative of systems that have a clearly defined grammar and perform search through application of that grammar, i.e. an example of routine design.

Interpreting

Through additional rules, the system is able to explore. After producing an artefact, the system interprets what it has produced such that:

  • If the current artefact, along with the previous two artefacts, make up an arithmetic or geometric progression, then change the operator to the corresponding operator; and
  • If the numeric value used to create the arithmetic or geometric progression is outside of the constraint, extend the bounds of the constraint

The significance of this will be in the paper, but essentially it’s representative of the way that people undertake creative tasks. We have vast amounts of experience, but only access some of it at a time. This kind of generate-and-interpret movement is a suggestion for how we move around within our own experiences, stimulated by interpreting what it is that we’ve created:

 

The importance of context for studying online groups in Facebook

This piece originally appeared on the Australian Digital Futures Institute blog with the same title.

Social science researchers in the 21st Century often find themselves wanting to analyse interaction in online groups. This is quite simply because an awful lot of social interaction occurs online these days what with Facebook, email, learning management systems, forums and all the rest. We are as a society perhaps still coming to terms with the notion that there are quite a few people out there who utter more words online than they do face to face (I suspect that some days I might be one of them).

context
context

At first glance, online groups represent an incredible opportunity for researchers. Every trace from every interaction, however informal, is recorded, along with its timestamp and a unique code. A greedy glint comes into the eyes of any statistician or researcher with a data mining technique or two up their sleeve at the mere thought of thousands, perhaps millions, of interactions waiting to be analysed. But there is more to this story – context is important for studying online groups in Facebook.

My particular area of study is looking at the professional development of teachers in online groups. In work that I’m doing with Dr Amy Antonio of ADFI, we’re looking at Facebook groups to see how teachers are providing for one another with things like links to resources, opportunities for reflection, practical advice and emotional support.

We picked a popular Facebook group and downloaded its thousands of messages and began applying the tools of the trade in earnest: social network analysis to see who is important in the group; thematic analysis to see what’s being talked about; manual coding to get a calibration and an intuition for the data and a deeper understanding through discourse analysis of specific parts of the interaction.

The problem with all this though is that we hadn’t taken into account the question of context.

Online spaces are by definition artificial environments. Everything is designed: the look and feel of the space, the actions it affords, the representations of the people inside it and even the ways in which those people can interact. Again: all this is designed.

When researching these online spaces, we need to confront the fact that we cannot make assumptions about what might constitute “normal” activity or interaction in the space.

If I’m studying an online group that only talks to each other once a week, when for other groups within the same environment the norm is about 100 posts a day, then that is significant and says perhaps that whatever we find out about this group doesn’t really apply generally to the larger environment. I’ve not conducted a meta-analysis or anything, but anecdotally this seems to be missing from many studies of online groups.

And so what I’ve learnt from all this is that:

  1. When analysing online groups, we can’t make assumptions that the group is “typical” for that environment without making sure of it. And beyond that:
  2. We can’t assume that we know what a “typical” interaction in the environment looks like without considering the design of that environment.

More on the P-TECH model in Australia

The Sydney Morning Herald did a piece on the plan to start doing private-public partnerships in developing high schools as it appears that the current government plans to go down this path

I have previously written about this perhaps not being a good idea. My thinking is that in education we should first do no harm, and given that there is an experiment in place in the US then we should at the very least wait to see what an evaluation comes up with before rushing in. Secondly, the motivations of corporations would seem to have no place in education other than perhaps no-strings-attached philanthropy. There appears to be a clear conflict of interests in the P-TECH model where the corporations have a say in the curricula for certain subjects.

The SMH piece is here. An extract from this article:

Nick Kelly, a research fellow at the Australian digital futures institute at the University of Southern Queensland, said the first students from the Brooklyn school would not graduate until 2017, so measuring its success was still years away.

Dr Kelly said he doubted parents would be comfortable with big business having a say in the curriculum taught to their children.
“If you start from the question of what is the aim of education, you have people like [Maria] Montessori saying the aim is to give children a chance to manifest their true nature, and [Paulo] Freire talking about giving children the chance to think critically, and [Rudolf] Steiner saying it is about uniting the heads, hands and heart,” he said.

“And then we have Abbott saying it is about giving children the chance to get a job. You have to ask, is that our ultimate aim.”

2014 CoCo Seminar – Supporting Pre-Service and Early Career Teachers in Australia: Design for a Learning Network

Below are the details of a talk presented at the CoCo research lab at the university of Sydney.

A link to the AdobeConnect recording of the presentation can be found here.

Abstract:
This talk presents a number of perspectives upon a growing learning network of pre-service and early career teachers. The learning network has arisen through a collaboration between a number of Australian universities, with the aim of facilitating support in the transition between pre-service education and the first years of service. The talk is structured to refer to this example in posing questions more general to design for learning networks:

– What is the motivation for developing the learning network? Original research into the need to augment teacher support in Australia.
– How do design of the set, activities and relationships align with participant motivations? Participant ownership and designing for culture (desired within the network) as well as cultural history (of the participants in other networks).
– How does theory influence the design process? Theory-based criticism of the design and allowing this to inform further design.

Transpose midi with python for computational creativity in the domain of music

I have been spending some time putting into practice the ideas that I’ve been developing with Prof John Gero around the role of interpretation in computational creativity, in the domain of Python generated MIDI music. This post shows how to transpose MIDI with python as well as setting the scene for more research to follow.

There is a great tutorial from the Deep Learning team on how to train a system to produce music from examples – however, the examples from the code in the tutorial are fairly awful musically, as the system is learning on songs written in many different keys (the examples in the zip file at the bottom of the page with improvements are far more interesting musically).

It is beneficial to train the system with all files in the same key so that they create harmonies rather than discordance (as they suggest on that linked page – check the difference between the files with and without this).

There is a script below to use Python to transpose MIDI files into C major. Compare the two samples on the tutorial page with these two following transposition into a standard key: sample1 and sample2

The piano rolls for these are respectively:

figure_1

figure_2

The point of this post is to share this script for anyone following on in wanting to transpose MIDI files using python (script below) as well as to set the scene for more research to follow in this domain.

Having replicated what the DeepLearning people have done, the challenge is to:

1) set up a limited conceptual space within which the system generates; and
2) have it go through a phase of interpretation (currently not in the algorithm at all) where it can change this conceptual space

The reason is that my work has suggested that generation occurs within a limited conceptual space, whereas interpretation uses the breadth of experience. This domain of music is useful for demonstrating this – I will post more examples of python midi music as it gets developed.

Transpose MIDI with Python

Does Australia want the P-TECH model?

Corporate highs: the US P-TECH model for schools in Australia?

[Article originally published in The Conversation here]

Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited a P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early Career High) school in New York last week, hinting it’s a model of education we should consider implementing in Australia. The school, partly funded by IBM and training students to suit the company’s needs, is different to anything we have in Australia. While the P-TECH model would be feasible here, the model risks confusing economic needs with educational ones.

The P-TECH model in the US

The approach taken by P-TECH has generated a lot of interest since it was opened in 2011. It already has a name, the P-TECH model, and is being copied in cities around the US. New York State, for example, has developed partnerships for a further 16 schools like the original.

The P-TECH model sounds a little confusing at first: both private and public money is used to fund high schools that also give university degrees. P-TECH schools are situated in low socio-economic areas and have a stated aim of helping students to become “job ready” for a particular sector of employment that has a shortage of workers. Existing schools in the US have focused on training for the technology sector and new schools are also looking to train workers for manufacturing and health care.

During Abbott’s recent US visit, he hinted these private P-TECH schools are something Australia would think about adopting.
AAP

The school that Abbott visited, for example, was funded by the NYC Department of Education, the City University of New York and the private company IBM. The school goes for two years beyond the equivalent of our Year 12. Graduates receive corporate mentoring during their study, an associate degree in technology (similar to a diploma) upon graduation, as well as a job interview with IBM.

“The school that will get you a job.”
Time Magazine

Politicians in particular are big proponents of the P-TECH model because it looks like a win-win situation. The nation’s economy gets a supply of workers in sectors where there are perceived shortages. The private business entering into the partnership gets positive publicity and a supply of qualified labour. The state gets to have the cost of education significantly subsidised by private enterprise. And the student gets a qualification for the cost of just two years’ extra study.

While the ideas in these schools are not new, their integration in the P-TECH model is generating a buzz in the US to the point that the latest version in Chicago made the front page of TIME magazine. The question is now being asked whether the model might have a place in Australia.

Is it feasible in Australia?

While we don’t have anything like the culture of philanthropy seen in the US, businesses see this model as much more of an investment (in publicity, recruitment and training) than charity. There would likely be interested parties, especially given the huge positive coverage received by IBM in the US.

The challenge for implementing these schools is in the grey area they occupy between high schools and universities. In Australia, only accredited institutions can award degrees. Any P-TECH type school would require either accreditation or exemption – this would be difficult for a school to obtain without significant political willpower.

Perhaps more to the point, it is difficult to see the need for schools that give degrees in Australia, where the separation of school and further education still serves the needs of both students and the national interest.

Does the P-TECH model have educational merit?

We’ve been talking about a new type of school, yet still have not mentioned educational value. This is partly because the first cohort at P-TECH hasn’t graduated yet so not much is known about outcomes. Yet we can consider likely implications.

Those arguing for these schools point out the advantages to students in gaining employment and higher starting salaries. This comes from an unstated belief that the goal of education is to create graduates who meet the economic needs of the country, and that those graduates can thus fulfil their own need for gainful employment. From this perspective there is no problem with inclusion of private companies in educational partnerships.

The view of the PM is typical of this notion of education:

What we want to do is ensure that youngsters are getting an education which is relevant to their needs and that we are investing in education and training systems that are going to have appropriate economic pay-offs for our country.

What this perspective neglects is that the next generation has needs much broader than gaining employment and being a part of the economic life of the country. For example, they need to leave school with the ability to think critically, to have the broad range of skills for leading a fulfilling and creative life – no matter their circumstances. This view is summed up by Richard Shaull in his foreword to educational theorist Paulo Freire’s book:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

The P-TECH schools, with their involvement of the private sector and focus upon vocational training, are likely to be a step backwards in achieving this. It is entirely possible for these schools to succeed in their own terms and achieve high rates of graduate employment, yet still to fail their students.

The Conversation

Nick Kelly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Do we want an Augmented Reality or a Transformed Reality?

It is widely agreed that we are headed towards a world where augmented reality (AR) systems will be as common as smart phones are today. In The Conversation alone you can read about how it will revolutionise medicine, entertainment, the lives of disabled persons and of course advertising and shopping.

The big three tech companies are all spending big on technology in the AR domain for this reason. Google will be releasing Google Glass later in the year, Microsoft has been working on its own AR device and Facebook recently bought the Virtual Reality company Oculus Rift.

Through AR in its proposed incarnation as a kind of “smartphone within our glasses”, we will have the ability to control everything entering our optical nerves – and to integrate this visual data with a wealth of external information in order to transform our daily lives.

This could mean offering us information about people as they pop into our field of view, information about objects when we see them or even introducing to our field of view things that don’t exist at all.

The unspoken future

The recent history of technology suggests that it is no stretch to predict the future of AR if we leave it in the hands of these tech giant companies.

There will be apps that extend ever further into the visual domain aiding us in all those things we do, be it building a house, studying at a distance, travelling in a new city and even making love.

The price for access to these new services and of having information at our fingertips however will be surrendering ever more of our personal information. Most critical of all, we will likely need to submit to the potential for advertising everywhere.

We’ve already seen how the preponderance of screens in the world has increased human consumption of advertising – what some refer to as pollution of the mental environment.

By surrendering control over our corneas advertising no longer needs to be limited to a screen or a surface.

AR has the potential to be a truly disruptive technology, but a question being asked now that we find ourselves on the doorstep of this future is: Do we want a world that is a better-functioning, more efficient version of the one we find ourselves in?

Transformed Reality?

Luckily artists have also got their hands upon the technology to provoke our imagination to dream about how instead of merely augmenting reality we could be aiming to transform it.

Consider for example the Artvertiser project, where artists have developed an application that replaces all billboards in your visual field with images of art – instead of subconsciously consuming ads from the bank you could be consuming artworks from Banksy, for example.

artvertiser

(source:http://theartvertiser.com/)

This is a deep idea that demonstrates the choice that AR presents to its adopters.

Through detection, replacement and synthesis AR has the potential to either add or subtract entirely from our sensations. Whole environments, buildings and even people could be filtered in or out based on personal preference.

We will, for the first time, be able to exercise control over almost everything entering in through our visual field – if we want to.

AR is different to other technologies. Because it is so closely tied to our senses (and the focus here has been upon vision, yet it needn’t be) we can not only add to our reality, but also subtract from our reality.

This is the first time in human history that this has been possible, and now is the time to start dreaming –how could we use the advent of AR to transform society for a world that each of us wants to live in?

The United States Model for Higher Education in Australia

I’ve just had an article published in the conversation, which is the short-form version of a longer piece that I wrote. It’s about the proposed changes to the Australian system of Higher Education, why this looks a lot like the model used in the US and the research into likely impacts from the proposed changes.

Here’s the long form version:
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Students protest the “American Model” for higher education

If you wondered why a few thousand students were marching around Melbourne and Sydney yesterday, it’s because of the government’s plans to emulate the United States in the way that our university system runs. Education Minister Christopher Pyne makes no secret of his admiration for the American higher education model, saying three weeks ago to a London audience that “we have much to learn about universities competing for students and focussing on our students. Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States.”

Yesterday’s marches were organised by the National Union of Students using the tag line “say no to deregulation and the American model”. They are a response to last week’s budget which proposes a move towards students taking on more debt and universities competing directly for students on the basis of price as well as quality – the hallmarks of the American model. What does this mean for the future of Australia’s higher education, why are students up in arms, and why would the government want to do this?

What are the changes that have got students into the streets?

The government has proposed three big changes to higher education that have got students onto their feet and out on the streets: deregulating fees, lowering government subsidies for student places and charging real interest on HELP loans.

As has been written about extensively, deregulating fees means universities can charge what students are willing to pay. This means that they will go up on average (even the government forecast is 14% although nobody really knows by quite how much), especially in elite universities where they will go up significantly more than this. Lowering the government subsidy to university places by 20% makes sure that the rise is fees will be at least this much.

Finally, the government is raising the interest on student loans (which, remember, will be larger than in the past). Previously loans were indexed to inflation meaning that there was no real interest. The proposed change is to use the government 10-year Treasury rate (currently at 3.76% but which has an average of 5.54% over the past 16 years). This means that loans (which often take decades to pay back) will be growing through the effects of compound interest, multiplying the effect of any rises to university fees.

What is the “American Model” and will these changes really take us there?

Looking at Australian and US universities in 2014, the clear differences that can be summarised by two words: diversity and debt.

In Australia, all of our universities are funded under a single model and student fees are capped through regulation. As a result there are only modest differences between our institutions.

In contrast, the American model has been deregulated to allow vast differences between universities. To give an idea of the disparity, annual tuition fees at elite universities can be enormous (e.g. $44,000 at Harvard) whilst the lower tier of regional universities charge significantly less (e.g. $4,500 at New Mexico Highlands University).

Mr Pyne continues to tout the American model to his London audience on the basis of exactly this diversity: “they have developed a diverse array of institutions encouraging prospective students to pick and choose their futures and where they are going to study, immerse themselves in enriching extra-curricular activities, and make life-long friends.” This desire for “more diversity” is Pyne’s way of saying that he wants our top universities to be better and compete with the Harvard’s of the world, even if the cost is that our other universities are worse off.

The government has made it clear that one of its main priorities for higher education is “not getting left behind” by having more of our universities in the top 50 in the world (indeed, Pyne litters many of his speeches with commentary on our status within the university world rankings, despite significant criticisms of how meaningful they are). Deregulating fees is designed to create the disparity that will enable this, creating the virtuous cycles that will allow universities with a strong reputation to charge higher fees and increase quality – and the less-discussed vicious cycles that will see other universities have to compete on price rather than quality. The clearly stated goal is to bring about the kind of ‘diversity’ seen in the US system.

The second part of the US model is in regard to student debt. In Australia in 2014, students are given loans by the government through the HECS-HELP scheme. Students pay the loan back at a compulsory rate that varies from 4-8% of income, rising along with salary – however these payments only kick in once loan holders are earning over a certain threshold (currently $53,345). The public purse contributes significantly to the cost of higher education in the form of this below-market rate of interest as well as debts that do not get paid back.

In 2014 students in the US are eligible for a “federal loan”, mostly through the Stafford loan scheme that has an interest rate linked to the US Federal 10-year Treasury rate plus a small margin. This is currently at 3.86%, although students who have financial need have this interest subsidised by the government. In addition, all students taking out loans pay a 1% loan fee and government subsidies have strict conditions on them.

The 2014-15 budget proposal to link student debt to government 10-year Treasury bonds would bring Australia directly in line with interest in the US model. Pyne’s claim that profits used from the loans will subsidize students with financial need is yet to be fully described, but also appears to be in line with the US model of subsidies for students in need. Like the US system the changes move towards a “user pays” model, in which the combination of higher fees and the introduction of real interest on debts will move the cost of studying onto individual students.

Taken with Pyne’s comments, it seems clear that the changes being proposed to Australia’s higher education system are aimed at making the Australian system more like the US system. If that’s the case, what can we learn from the US system before we start to go down this path?

The American student debt problem

Whilst the government’s main concern is raising the quality of our top universities, the priorities of the students marching yesterday was a concern about the social and economic problems that the US model has been seen to cause.

There is much evidence from around the world that higher fees disproportionately affect students from a low SES background. Firstly the prospect of high levels of debt discourages these students from attending university. Put simply, the idea of taking on a $100,000 dollar debt for a law degree looks very different depending on whether your parents are earning twice that or half that. Secondly, students from a low SES background end up paying more fees overall (e.g. not having parents helping leads to longer time to pay off the debt which with real interest means that they simply pay more). Professor Bruce Chapman, who designed the current HECS system to combat exactly these factors, is one of the many critics of the shift towards a US model on the basis that it will hit women and students from low SES backgrounds the hardest.

Shifting the burden of paying for education away from the public purse (coming from taxes on those with a higher income, generally the previous generation) and onto individual students (the next generation) is something that a nation can only do once. The government that implements such a change can claim many ‘savings’ but it has many hidden negative consequences.

Student debt in the US is causing what some academics have called a “crisis of justice”, affecting the everyday lives of students who for years after graduating are required to use their disposable income to service their student debt. One group that suffers most from higher fees are those students that for a range of reasons drop out of university before completing their degree.

The level of debt in the US has not just led to social inequality but also widespread economic problems. For example, high levels of student debt directly correlate with the decreasing number of loans for homes and cars being taken out by young adults. High levels of personal debt are having a negative impact upon the national economy as a whole.

And in case there is any doubt that fees will rise, the US example shows that fees have risen at a rate that far outstrips inflation. In the ten years to August 2013 the CPI (inflation) was 26.1% whilst the cost of tuition rose 79.5%. In other words, opening fees up to unregulated competition has led to everyone paying more.

One reason for higher fees is that deregulating universities opens them up to market forces, obliging them to do what it takes to stay competitive. For example, based on the US model we can expect to see our universities vastly increase the amount of their budget used for marketing. A US senate committee into for-profit universities found that on average 23% of the budget was being spent on marketing.

The reason why students were out marching in the streets yesterday should not simply be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to being asked to pay more. Rather it should be taken as a response to having heard the words and seen the actions of the current government in their desire to emulate the American model. The students protesting, supported by a host of academics similarly critical, are saying that embracing the US system is not what they want for the future of higher education in Australia.

 

Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Research on teacher support, online communities and the cognition of creativity.