Angela Brew

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Self-fulfilment, personal development and the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself; the provision of skills of critical analysis and independent thought to support full participation in a civil society; the preparation of leaders for diverse, global environments; and support for a highly productive and professional labour force should be key features of Australian higher education. (Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System)

Thus the Australian government responded to the recent Bradley Review of higher education. I don’t suppose there would be many in the HERDSA community who would disagree with this. Indeed, this vision is well within the spirit of the HERDSA submission to that very review.

Asked to provide some “reflections” on HERDSA, my life membership, related aspects of higher education, present or future, it is perhaps inevitable that my thoughts should turn to the documents I have been delving into during the past few days. Having spent the last 14 years or so working to improve students’ learning experiences at the University of Sydney where improvements in students’ overall satisfaction of one, two or three percent used to be considered an achievement, I was interested to learn from the Bradley Review Report that students in UK universities rate the “overall satisfaction” item on the CEQ 14–15 per cent higher than students in Australian universities. The HERDSA community is comprised of hard-working, committed, enthusiastic teachers and academic developers who care deeply about students’ learning experiences. Yet sometimes it seems as if we’re walking on a travelator going in the opposite direction.

I’ve been looking in these documents for a spark; an idea or vision that can lead the way to a different kind of higher education. I wanted to find somewhere there a glimmer of a recognition of what kind of learning could be appropriate for the students of the twenty-first century. You see I think that moving to a student-centred (or, as it has become known, a student-focused) higher education, can only take us so far because it doesn’t address issues related to the fundamental relationships between academic and student, and between both and society.

In a globalised world, where knowledge is available at the click of a mouse, we need a scholar-focused higher education; a higher education where students can participate in what George Kuh calls “high impact” activities, for example: engaging in learning communities alongside academics; learning through community service; engaging in workplace learning; integrating learning from different units together through capstone courses and projects; and undertaking undergraduate research.

I’ve recently returned from a study tour of the USA which I undertook as part of my ALTC National Teaching Fellowship. I visited a number of institutions and spoke to many people who are involving undergraduates in research. “They do good work”, said one senior academic. “It completes the teaching”, said another. “Students come from high school expecting it and employers look for people who’ve done undergraduate research,” said yet another. Even President Barrack Obama in a recent speech to the American Academy of Sciences indicated that he was launching a new initiative which included creating research opportunities for undergraduates. What puzzles me is this: why is undergraduate research and inquiry such an excepted part of university practice in the USA, and treated with such scepticism in Australasia?

I’m grateful to the ALTC for the opportunity to think about, study and, hopefully, stimulate debates about undergraduate research and inquiry. For I believe that it is through the process of inquiry that the noble aims of self-fulfilment, personal development, and the pursuit of knowledge can be realised. What better way to learn is there than through active inquiry into an aspect of the world which intrigues and excites us? What better way is there to develop the skills of critical analysis and independent thought and prepare students to be innovators in a democratic society within the complex global environments of the twenty-first century?

Well, now I’m on my hobby horse. I am grateful to HERDSA for recognising my work through the award of life membership. HERDSA has been a tremendous source of support, ideas, inspiration and friendship through the years. It’s fantastic to see the Society going from strength to strength. There’s a big job to be done to change learning and teaching experiences across the nations of HERDSA’s membership. The collective effort of HERDSA members past, present and future is vast. We should never forget that.

Reflections by Angela Brew