Griffith University

We have a massive teaching shortage. Here’s how to fix it

The Federal Department of Education predicts an alarming teacher shortage of 4,100 teachers by 2025. It is now more pressing than ever that we explore ways of addressing this crisis. 

Our research examined female Initial Teacher Education (ITE) completion data in Australia to identify trends around which degree types (postgraduate and undergraduate) and study modes (internal, external, and multimodal) are likely to attract more potential female ITE students, and subsequently increase the ITE completion and ultimately the teacher supply pipeline.   

The research reveals a declining trend in ITE completion by females in the internal study mode for both degree types.  On the contrary, there has been an increasing trend in ITE completion by females in the external and multimodal study modes for both types of programs.  We therefore argue that policymakers and universities should make these programs and study modes more accessible to potential female ITE students.  This would help to maximise female ITE completion in tackling the predicted teacher shortage. 

Why use female ITE completion data

Historically, the teaching profession in Australia – and globally – has attracted more females than males. As such, efforts to increase the number of females graduating from ITE programs would play a significant role in bolstering the teaching workforce. Supporting women’s entry and retention in the teaching profession is key to ensuring an adequate ongoing teacher supply.  

A closer look at what the female ITE completion data tell us 

Our research shows that for the period from 2001 to 2021, there was a significant decline – by nearly 40 per cent – of female ITE completion in the internal study mode for undergraduate ITE programs. But at the same time, female ITE completion by multimodal study doubled and nearly tripled for female ITE graduates in the external study mode.   

Similar observations can be seen with the postgraduate ITE programs.  The internal study mode declined by nearly 20 per cent in the same period. For the external and multimodal study modes, there were mammoth increases of 264.40% and 1089.11% respectively in female ITE completion.  

It is clear that there is a growing interest by females to enrol in and complete ITE programs in the external and multimodal study modes as opposed to the internal study mode. 

A graph showing the percentage of a course type

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The upward trend in the external and multimodal study modes is likely attributed, in part, to technological advancements.  The increased use and accessibility of the internet in homes would have contributed to the growth in female ITE completion in these modes of study.  

These same technological advancements facilitated the adoption of online delivery methods for ITE degrees by universities. The shift to online learning around 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic would have also contributed to the upward trend in the external study mode. 

Given the increasing trend in female ITE completion in these flexible study modes, universities would be wise to make these modes more accessible to maximise ITE completion.  We argue that policymakers, universities and schools have an important role to play in this space to address the teacher shortage. 

Policymakers should consider: 

Offering financial support, such as scholarships and financial incentives, which are specifically targeted at female students, for example: 

  1. loans or grants for female students during placements to help cover living expenses; and 
  2. needs-based support for female students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds. 
  3. Capping tuition fees to ensure they remain affordable for all female students. 

Universities should consider:  

Providing support for students balancing academic studies with other commitments, such as family duties, which disproportionately burden female students, such as: 

  1. flexible assignment extension and leave of absence policies; and 
  2. subsidised childcare services. 

Offering flexible study options, which might include: 

  1. part-time study;  
  2. evening classes; 
  3. block study; and 
  4. mixed study mode. 

Enhancing the accessibility of external and multimodal programs by: 

  1. providing 24/7 IT helpdesk support and certified training programs to aid the development of skills required for online learning; 
  2. implementing user-friendly learning management systems and eLearning tools; and 
  3. offering funding for suitable IT equipment and internet access, especially for those in regional areas.

Fostering supportive and inclusive learning environments by: 

  1. establishing peer support groups and academic skills advising tailored to external and online students; 
  2. providing networking opportunities;  
  3. mentorship programs; and 
  4. further initiatives that address the unique challenges faced by women in tertiary study. 

Schools should consider: 

Collaborating with policymakers and universities in structured partnerships to: 

  1. facilitate the establishment of outreach programs; 
  2. provide mentoring initiatives; and 
  3. promote teaching as a viable and rewarding career choice for females.

Investing in flexible, supportive, and financially accessible ITE programs, alongside broader strategies can encourage more females to enrol in and complete ITE degrees.  This would contribute to ensuring a steady supply of qualified teachers to help avert the pending teacher shortage. 

From left to right: Scott Cowie is a librarian in Academic Engagement Services at Griffith University, who has a keen interest in educational research.  Loan Dao is an Educational Designer at the University of New South Wales and an Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Access Education at Central Queensland University.  Jeanne Allen is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University and is also a member of the Griffith Institute for Educational Research.  Darren Pullen is a Lecturer in Health Science and Information and Communications Technology in the School of Education at the University of Tasmania.

Working future: Now, how to build a bridge

The Federal Government’s white paper Working Future argues for closer cooperation between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education (HE). The goal is a seamless array of lifelong education opportunities for Australians. 

Here’s the problem. VET and HE don’t always work well together, prompting commentators to characterise the Australian tertiary sector as a ‘binary’. But that’s not my only concern – the white paper reflects a degree of amnesia about the history of the sector. The silos of VET and HE are largely creations of government policy over several decades.

The call for a more effective tertiary sector runs up against a complex of differences: dimensions of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, teacher preparation, regulation, funding and marketisation. These individual differences have sprung from government policy, even in relation to fundamentally educational categories.

One of these differences stands out as fundamental for both educators and policy makers. Curriculum is fundamental because it expresses the meaning of educational intentions and experience. In the context of Australian tertiary education and its problematic binary structure, the importance of curriculum is amplified. 

On one side of the tertiary binary, a single curriculum model has been successfully imposed on providers and teachers while the other side has managed to avoid it. On the VET side, ‘competency-based training’ (CBT) was implemented as a system-wide model for all government-funded provision. Its justification was economic and social. In the 1980s, the Labour Government initiated sweeping reforms to reposition Australia as a global economic competitor across its portfolios, including VET. Higher education was targeted too, but it effectively resisted imposition of a CBT approach.  

The upshot was that HE was left to follow its own lights in regard to curriculum. Of course, there are broad structures that impinge on curriculum in HE, such as the Australian Qualifications Framework, but their level of prescription is modest, at least in terms of implications for actual curriculum. 

The lack of centralised control over HE curriculum turned out to be a boon for that side of the tertiary sector. It means HE providers can exercise maximum creativity in relation to curriculum, and rest on the expertise and insight of their teachers and researchers to craft learning experiences that directly reflect the requirements of disciplines, study areas and professions with a stake in HE. 

Even where standards are produced by professional associations and tied to program accreditation, HE providers have latitude to meet those standards in unique and innovative ways and the conceptualisation of standards is specific to the industry involved (rather than a generic model like CBT).

It is worth pointing out that if professional standards become too prescriptive then curriculum quality suffers and teachers may become alienated. 

That is precisely what has happened in VET. CBT can be regarded as a highly prescriptive implementation of standards relating to industries served by that system. Instead of high-level expressions of essential capabilities such as those prepared by Engineers Australia and used in HE engineering programs, competency standards in VET are intricately detailed and include very specific requirements about what knowledge and skills are supposed to underpin competent performances and how those performances should be assessed. 

The curricular impact of adherence to such standards is hard to overstate. It is possible to imagine that very uninformed providers and teachers might benefit from that level of prescription, but for the bulk of educators in VET the imposition is frustrating and even demoralising. As such, the quality of the whole system may be compromised through overprescription of industry standards. 

But it takes educational expertise to untangle many of these issues. At the level of policy making, high levels of prescription may be reassuring.  Policy makers may find it difficult to trace ramifications for curriculum innovation and quality.

From a curriculum angle, an effective tertiary sector in Australia would require stepping back and considering how to find a productive balance between industry or professional standards on the one hand, and curriculum innovation on the other. 

Critical here is the level of prescription attached to standards. Those representing industries and professions should leave educational decisions to those with educational expertise. As the VET experience demonstrates, it is easy for industry representatives to stray into the realm of curriculum decision-making and thereby impose constraints on educational innovation and quality that in turn undermine provider and teacher expertise and motivation. 

A more effective tertiary sector would be one where great care is taken to promote curricular creativity across both VET and HE. Winding back the curricular constraints implicit in the Australian implementation of CBT in VET is one way to address the binary of our tertiary sector. At the same time, those who work in HE should remain vigilant. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which standards for an area like Initial Teacher Education (ITE) become politicised and from there become more prescriptive and exert stronger influence over actual curriculum in ITE degrees. In a scenario like that, the quandary in which expert and caring educators in VET find themselves could become a reality for education academics responsible for ITE.

This Blog is based in part on a recent MCERA Webinar ( and on a paper by Hodge, Guthrie, Jones and Waters currently under review. Contact Steven Hodge ( for a copy of the draft.

Steven Hodge is a member of the Griffith Institute for Educational Research (GIER) and of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University, where he is Director of the Master of Education and Graduate Certificate in Professional Learning programs. He is immediate past president of the Australasian Vocational Education and Training Association and key contributor to debate in Australian post-compulsory education.

Why you can’t identify gifted students using NAPLAN

Some schools rely on NAPLAN results to identify gifted students, a trend that is leading to many high-potential learners being overlooked and neglected. New research outlines the mistake of using this standardised assessment as the only identification tool for giftedness when it was never designed or intended for this purpose.

There are over 400,000 gifted students in Australia’s schools (approximately 10% of school students), but there are no national identification practices or national means of collecting information about Australian school students who are gifted.It has been over 20 years since the last national inquiry into the education of gifted and talented children in Australia. Despite two senate inquiries (one in 1988 and one in 2001), there are no national initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of ongoing problems in identifying and supporting the needs of gifted learners. It is a national disgrace that gifted students are among some of the most underserved and neglected students in our schools.

The Contentious Belief in NAPLAN for Identifying Giftedness

In education, we constantly strive to uncover and nurture the gifts of our students and develop these into talents, hoping to unleash the full extent of their potential across their lifespan. In Australia, the National Assessment Program–Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) plays a controversial role in evaluating student performance and guiding educational policies and practices. However, there exists a contentious belief that NAPLAN data alone can accurately identify high-potential gifted students. In this blog post, I delve into the fallacy of exclusively using NAPLAN data to identify gifted students. 

A Snapshot of NAPLAN

NAPLAN is a nationwide standardised assessment, conducted annually in Australia, designed to assess the proficiency of students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, in key learning areas, specifically reading, writing, language conventions, and numeracy. Its main goal is to gauge the effectiveness of the education system and pinpoint areas that may require improvement. NAPLAN was never designed, intended, or validated as a tool to identify giftedness. It was also never designed to make leagues tables for comparing schools.

What is giftedness?

Gifted students typically exhibit advanced cognitive abilities, exceptional problem-solving skills, and have a high capacity for critical thinking. They often demonstrate creativity, strong motivation to learn (in areas of interest), and an insatiable curiosity. In Australia, the terms gifted and talented are often used as synonyms where in fact they have separate meanings. Giftedness is defined using Gagné’s Differentiating Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT). In this Model, gifted individuals are understood to have (sometimes as yet unidentified) potential to excel across various domains, including intellectual, (e.g., general intelligence); creative (e.g., problem-solving); social (e.g., leadership); and motor control (e.g., agility).

On the other hand, the Model associates the term talent with performance, accomplishment or achievement, which is outstanding mastery of competencies in a particular field. The term talented is used to only describe individuals who are among the top 10 percent of peers (e.g., leading experts in their field) in any of nine competencies, including academic (e.g., mathematics); technical (e.g., engineering); science and technology (e.g., medical); the arts (e.g., performing); or sports (e.g., athletic talents).

Giftedness seems to be a misunderstood word in Australia. It is often incorrectly construed as referring to people who apparently ‘have it all’, whatever the elusive ‘it’ might be! Anyone who has any experience with giftedness would know that this is an elitist and unrealistic view of gifted learners and indeed, gifted education. In Australian education systems that are based on Gagné’s Model, giftedness focuses on an individual’s potential and ways to foster that potential through programs and practices that support the development of giftedness into talent.

Identifying Giftedness

The quest to identify gifted students has been a long-standing objective for education systems that seek to be genuinely inclusive. Research recommends that we should aim to identify exceptional potential as early as possible, providing tailored education to further nurture abilities. Naturally, the notion of using standardised test data, such as NAPLAN results, can be appealing because of its relative ease of implementation and data generated. But giftedness is not always demonstrated through achievement or performance. Rather, what NAPLAN may identify is some form of talent if we are using Gagné’s definitions.

Giftedness can coexist with other exceptionalities, such as disabilities, where a student is said to be twice-exceptional (or a gifted learner with disability). The twice-exceptionality stems from the two exceptionalities—individuals who are gifted (exceptional potential ) and have coexisting disabilities (e.g., learning, physical, or emotional), and therefore, require unique educational support that addresses both exceptionalities.

Why is Identification Important?

Many students can have their educational needs addressed in a typical classroom, but gifted learners often need specific interventions (e.g., extension, acceleration), or something different (e.g., specific curriculum differentiation), that engages their potential, in areas such as creativity, problem-solving, and curiosity, to develop these natural abilities into competencies and mastery.

There remains a persistent myth that gifted students are so clever that they will always do just fine on their own, without specific support. Yet, we would never expect a gifted tennis player, or a gifted violinist to do “just fine” on their own—the expectation would be for expert, tailored coaching along with extensive opportunities for practice and rehearsal to develop the student’s potential. Coaches focus on the individual needs of the student, rather than a standardised teaching program designed to suit most, but not all. Still, in Australia many claim to have misgivings about introducing anything ‘special’ for gifted students, while not having the same reservations with respect to athletically gifted or musically gifted students.

What Happens if Gifted Learners are Not Supported?

Failing to support the unique needs of gifted students at school can have significant and detrimental consequences on the students and on education systems and societies. Gifted students who are not appropriately challenged and supported may become disengaged and underachieve academically. Some researchers have estimated that 60%-75% of gifted students may be underachieving.

Becoming bored in the classroom can cause disruptive behaviour and a lack of interest in school, leading to problems such as school ‘refusal’ or ‘school can’t’, disengagement and school ‘drop out’ (estimated at up to 40% of gifted students). This perpetuates a cycle of missed opportunities and undeveloped potential. Furthermore, without appropriate support, gifted students may struggle with social and emotional challenges, feeling isolated from their peers because of their unique interests and abilities. This can lead to anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

When gifted students are not recognised and supported so that their giftedness can be transformed into talents, they may develop feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. This can lead to decreased self-efficacy and self-confidence. Failing to identify and support gifted students means missing out on nurturing exceptional gifts that deprives the world of potential future leaders, innovators, medical researchers, and change-makers.

Gifted students from diverse backgrounds, including those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, may face additional barriers to identification and support. NAPLAN can be particularly problematic as a misused identification tool for underrepresented populations. Neglecting identification, and subsequently neglecting to address gifted students’ unique needs perpetuates inequity.

Societies and education systems that do not embrace inclusion and equity to the full extent risk continuing cycles of exclusion and inadequate support for giftedness. The OECD makes it clear that equity and quality are interconnected, and that improving equity in education should be a high priority. In Australia, priority equity groups never include giftedness or twice-exceptionality, and fail to recognise intersectionality of equity cohorts (e.g., gifted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students), further compounding disadvantage. When schools fail to support gifted students, these learners can become disengaged and leave school prematurely, impacting social wellbeing and economic growth, and representing a missed opportunity for education environments to be truly inclusive. Inclusive education must mean that everyone is included, not everyone except gifted learners.

The Fallacy Unveiled: Limitations of NAPLAN Data to Identify Giftedness

While NAPLAN may have some merits as a standardised assessment tool, problems have been identified and there have even been calls to scrap the tests altogether. So, it is vital to recognise NAPLAN’s limitations, especially concerning the identification of high-potential gifted students. Some key factors that contribute to the fallacy are the narrow assessment scope, because NAPLAN primarily focuses on literacy and numeracy skills. While these are undoubtedly critical foundational skills, they do not encapsulate the full spectrum of giftedness. Moreover, the momentary snapshot provided by NAPLAN of a student’s performance on a particular day may not accurately represent their true capabilities. Factors such as test anxiety, external distractions, or personal issues can significantly impact test outcomes, masking a student’s actual potential.

Giftedness often entails the capacity to handle complexity and to think critically across various domains. Standardised tests like NAPLAN do not effectively measure the multidimensionality of giftedness (from academic precocity, or potential to achieve academically, to creative thinking and problem solving). Relying solely on NAPLAN data to identify gifted students overlooks those who have potential to excel in non-traditional fields or those who possess such unique gifts.

Embracing Comprehensive Identification Practices

To accurately identify and cultivate giftedness, we must embrace a comprehensive and holistic approach for the purpose of promoting inclusive and supportive educational environments, and for developing talent. Using data from multiple sources in identifying giftedness, including both objective and subjective measures (i.e., comprehensive identification) is the gold standard.  

Comprehensive identification practices involve using multiple measures to identify giftedness, with the expectation that appropriate educational support follows. These identification practices should be accessible, equitable, and comprehensive to make sure identification methods are as broad as possible. Comprehensive identification may consist of student portfolios showcasing their projects, psychometric assessment, artwork, essays, or innovative solutions students have devised. This allows educators to gain a deeper understanding of a gifted student’s interests, passions, abilities, and potential.

Additionally, engaging parents, peers, and the student in the identification process can yield valuable perspectives on a student’s unique strengths and gifts, activities and accomplishments, which they may be involved in outside school. This may offer a more well-rounded evaluation. Experienced educators who have completed professional learning in gifted education could play a crucial role in recognising gifted traits in their students. 

By appropriately identifying, recognising, and addressing the needs of gifted students, we can create inclusive and enriched educational settings that foster the development of gifted potential in education environments that are genuinely inclusive.


Michelle Ronksley-Pavia is a Special Education and Inclusive Education lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies, and a researcher with the Griffith Institute for Educational Research (GIER), Griffith University. She is an internationally recognised award-winning researcher working in the areas of gifted education, twice-exceptionality (gifted students with disability), inclusive education, learner diversity, and initial teacher education. Her work centres on disability, inclusive educational practices, and gifted and talented educational practices and provisions. 

The way teachers work must change now. The Scott report doesn’t even try to fix the real challenge

There is a collective sigh of frustration from education academics when initial teacher education (ITE) is yet again the subject of review, with a series of recommendations that promise to transform not only ITE, but the teaching profession. Apparently the problems with the teaching profession are entirely the result of the failures of ITE. 

It is also crucial to consider these most recent recommendations in context – they are  the most recent in what has been a decade of ITE reform. 

Released on July 7 and titled Strong Beginnings: Report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel, this review has 14 recommendations across four domains, reflecting the earlier discussion paper: strengthening ITE programs to deliver confident, effective beginning teachers (which is mostly about embedding core content); strengthening the link between performance and funding of ITE programs (which is mostly about reporting and data); improving the quality of practical experiences in teaching; and improving access to postgraduate ITE for mid-career entrants.   

The opening sentence in the executive summary, “[T]he importance of great teachers cannot be overstated”, is uncontestable – thank you – we agree.  The closing paragraph provides the rationale and context for the recommendations that follow, acknowledging the “major reforms” progressed under Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG, 2014) and noting “but there is still more to do”.  

Warning bells – tinkering with ITE will not be a panacea for the workforce shortage challenges facing the sector, with ITE a small part of the much more complex landscape, and with a long lead time to take effect.  

I read the report and recommendations from the informed and insider position as a Dean of Education, Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education, program accreditation panellist and chairperson; for the duration of the time we collectively traversed the intense period rolling-out the reforms of TEMAG. 

It was indeed major – and very costly – reform.  Only recently, around the nation, have those reforms been fully implemented.  And we even have a few graduates who have journeyed through these new programs. It is important to acknowledge their added length combined with the time it takes to complete the programs – for many enrolled part-time due to the tough economic environment that demands they work alongside their study. 

We have only a few years of graduates from these TEMAGed programs so we don’t yet know the impact of the major reforms.  Hence, the value and impact of the TEMAG initiatives are not yet known in terms of the profession and workforce – in fact there is a gap in research about many aspects of ITE, a point clearly made in the report. 

The recommendations thus are appended to a significantly revamped ITE sector that has not had the benefit of resources to research and review the effects of major reform

The big shifts resulting from TEMAG include: additional non-academic requirements for entry to ITE; the Literary and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE); program standards; and demonstrating classroom readiness through the Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA), as a final hurdle, alongside mandatory volumes of learning and consistent professional experience time allocation. Some of these reforms are dubious in terms of adding quality and value and the cost benefit analysis for ITE, but none has been contested in the report recommendations. That’s a missed opportunity.   

There are some recommendations in the report that could be silver linings. Acknowledging the need for additional funding to research ITE and resourcing this deficit, and the intention to consider TPAs comparatively, are standouts for me. This makes sense as the focus should be on the readiness and novice expertise of ITE graduates about to enter the workforce, taking into account the learning and value that comes from their ITE program.  

Other glimmers of hope among the recommendations include: establishing a separate authority for oversight and achieving national consistency (contentious, but important); greater visibility of mentor teachers; and the importance of investing in professional experience by all members of the profession, which is a key aspect of program retention and identity development for ITE students. The mechanics for activating these innovations however, is lacking, so these might more properly be regarded as potential positives. The current demands on the ITE sector to meet accreditation requirements are significant, so adding to that does mean additional workload for tertiary educators, hence it is refreshing to see funding for transition and funding for the establishment of leadership institutions.  This is happening at a time when the number of tertiary experts in education is also depleted consequential to universities tightening their belts, so a reasonable implementation timeline will be crucial.

Less convincing is the need to specify core content. The question of what is core has been narrowed to four areas that appear, frankly, to be incontestable and likely already to feature in ITE programs in the country. It will be the necessary changes to standards that will take the time and the task of making visible the core content for compliance assurances, and the relative volume of learning and level of prescription that is yet to be defined that will undoubtedly cause consternation for the implementation of the core content recommendations. And the question of what is to be removed from programs is already sounding around the nation – adding more means something has to go. The loss of agility and likelihood of sameness is thus concerning, cookie cutter education programs seem to be the antithesis of what we need to ensure we attract and graduate a diverse teacher workforce.

Importantly, refinements in ITE do not solve the problem of workforce shortages in classrooms today.  

There is extensive research that points to the need for a major shift in the way we do schooling today.  The way teachers work also needs to change.  This is crucial for the necessary transformation that is needed to reset school education to reflect the needs of contemporary society.  The TEEP recommendations work within our current system and can be considered as an incremental step in the bigger challenge of transforming our schooling sector and the teachers entering it.

Professor Donna Pendergast is the Director of Engagement in the Arts, Education and Law Group and former Dean and Head of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research expertise is education transformation and efficacy.

We Found Education Schools Across The Nation Are Victims Of Targeted Cuts But More Threats Are Looming

At every university around the country, academics in schools and faculties of Education have been hit hard.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, have lost their jobs. Many of them are people we know. Yet it is not easy to identify the particular staff who have ‘disappeared’ from classes, courses and schools of Education among the seventeen and a half thousand other university staff who lost jobs around Australia during the initial COVID response alone.  These losses continue: we read about them daily. And higher education job losses affect far more than individuals and their personal aspirations. They also affect their families, their health, their mortgages, and the families and welfare of the communities in which they live, work and shop.  The fall-out is being felt everywhere, although it is most obvious in those regional cities highly dependent on the local university for their economic prosperity.

But what we are failing to notice is that these effects are particularly important in our Education faculties, at a time when states are facing a looming teacher shortage and the Federal Minister for Education and Youth is reviewing the capacity of our universities to attract high-quality candidates into teaching and to supply highly effective teachers.  If education is crucial to nation-building, there could not be a greater need for high-quality graduates to staff schools around the country.

But the academics who have survived in our schools of Education, either scraping a career together as short-term casuals, or scrabbling to remain as full-timers, are doing it tough.  

The climate of anxiety and insecurity in which these people (our neighbours, relatives, friends, clients and colleagues) are living is reminiscent of accounts of totalitarian regimes. In every capital city and university town around Australia, people are living in fear – afraid to say no when they are asked to do things that do not sit well on their consciences; afraid not to agree with the rationalisation to course content and assessment review needed to cope with  increased workload; afraid to admit that they haven’t had time to properly read and consider the implications of the policy changes they are being asked to approve in governance committees. Heads down, they are keeping under the radar as much as they can in order to survive. They are not proud of what they are doing at work, and they know the quality of what students are being offered is suffering too.  Headlines this week such as Murdoch Uni gags staff as students disillusioned over education quality  are beginning to reflect one reason why departing staff are often silenced by the non-disclosure clauses in their redundancy agreements.

She fears for her career if she names this place. In another university, a key professional staff member, whose knowledge and expertise in supporting the faculty’s upcoming course accreditation renewal are literally irreplaceable in the short term, has chosen to move on because he can no longer live with the moral disappointments of his daily work.  He needs to keep referees on side. And in a third institution another casual staff member, studying for the PhD that may now, ironically, lessen her chances of future employment, has been given three new subjects to teach with less than a fortnight’s notice.  Only one of these subjects is in her area of expertise.  She knows she hasn’t got time to read the material she will be teaching, but she needs the work. She will do her best, based on years of classroom teaching experience. While she knows it isn’t, her generalist knowledge is deemed adequate to teach the specialist knowledge that the Course Team, the Academic Board, AITSL, the profession, and Education Minister Tudge all see as necessary for her students to meet Australia’s Graduate Teacher standards.  A staffer at QUT, ‘safe’ for the moment, describes effects that are also experienced by peers in other places: “Everything that gets done is being pushed back to academic staff – everything. Academics who are not experts in professional tasks are doing professional tasks, which takes incredible amounts of time. There is a training video or a pdf training note for everything – and you get sent hyperlinks for these if you ask for help”. The loss of professional staff, or their relocation to central service areas, also affects the quality of what can be done across the board.  For Education, this is not good enough.

A long-term casual staff-member at one NSW university has been told that she is no longer being offered teaching or marking work because she has a PhD, and “people without doctoral qualifications are cheaper”. 

Schools and faculties of Education have been particularly hard-hit by longer-term structural change and stringency in universities, beginning before COVID. More recent reports of stress, overwork, anxiety are not limited to Education staff of course, highlighting the bleak picture across institutions.  Staff who are still employed must pick up the work of lost colleagues, and they are increasingly worried about what they are offering their students.  This is a sector in crisis. A WHS survey conducted earlier this year at the University of Wollongong indicated that, there, 90% of respondents believe there are not enough staff to get the work done, and 66% have considered leaving because of workplace stress (NTEU 2021p. 3). And alongside the serious problem of human and workforce costs, there is a pressing long-term issue for the nation in terms of the quality of what faculties of Education can offer their students ‘on the cheap’.  

It is obvious that the people who are being made ‘redundant’, or who are ‘separating’ from the institutions where they work are workers – the people who get things done.  They are not the managers, the highly paid senior executive staff, outside of Faculties, who direct and should govern what goes on. Mostly it is more senior academics – the more experienced workers – who are targeted for redundancy, because they are by definition not at the lowest pay rate.

In some institutions, such as the University of New South Wales, Canberra, QUT, and UniSA, the impact of staff losses is not visible in current numbers. At UNSW, four senior Education staff took Voluntary Redundancies at the end of 2020, but as a staff member there says, these are being replaced by three new appointments this term. Staff at UniSA say the situation is similar there. At UNSW, there are still hidden impacts – the increase in workload due to online and dual mode delivery, an increase in class sizes and what colleagues see as the exploitation of casual academics who are pressured by students to spend more time working with them online – and are afraid to refuse. At Macquarie, while education staff are hopeful that after losing six staff in 2020, they should avoid further redundancies in 2021 because they have made “sufficient internal savings”, yet staff cuts within the faculty will again be considered at the beginning of 2022.

Other places are already in real trouble.  At the University of Newcastle, which has earned a strong reputation for its educational research in NSW, staff say their numbers in 2020 were already down more than 10 in recent years, and they will have lost at least another 10 FTE staff members by the end of this year. Unlike other areas of that university, it seems, these education positions do not seem to merit replacement.

Similarly,  staff at the University of Melbourne report the loss of at least 13 FTE academic staff who have left Education, either taking redundancy packages or losing fixed-term contracts – half of these positions were at senior levels. While this has also been effective as a cost-saving strategy for the University, staff who are left report that they now find it hard to contract sessional staff, who are getting much more secure and rewarding work as casual teachers in schools (and who are being targeted by some state departments as potential ‘career-changers’ for more permanent roles). Staff at Griffith University say they had around 55 full time academics in 2020, but this is down to around 44.  And at UTS, over recent years, education has been steadily decreasing in size. What was a Faculty of Education was reduced to a School of Education, and then most recently to a merged School of International Studies and Education. As one staff member reports, “We started to feel more and more invisible, despite being told by the University leadership that commitment to Education was a part of the University’s social justice mission”. 

But they don’t have relationships with experienced professional staff, and they often don’t know the reasons why they need to adhere to policies. They don’t know who to talk to when they need to understand something to give good advice to a student; and they can’t see why they should not ‘improve’ the assessment task that has been carefully designed by a course team and approved by an Academic Board.

When experienced people disappear, so does the corporate knowledge that oils the gears of any institution, and is essential for it to run smoothly and efficiently.  When they are replaced, it is almost always now by new ‘teaching-only’ staff who are doing the very best they can.

In some cases, the disappearing staff are also taking the higher-level disciplinary expertise that the faculty relies on to meet TEQSA’s HE standards for staff qualifications.  As a staff member at one institution says regretfully: “It is now even more possible that a student undertaking their Master of Teaching course at this university may get through their whole degree and have only been taught by sessional teaching staff. This is in a faculty that is supposed to be ranked 1 or 2 in Australia for Education!”  

Worse, universities are disguising this information in their reports to government.  James Guthrie and Brendan O’Connell’s analysis of data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows that changes have been made by universities in how they are accounting for their employees in 2020.  This means that official government reports can not be reconciled with the numbers for staffing presented in the same universities’ 2020 annual reports. In his account of the obfuscation of numbers currently reported at the University of Wollongong, Guthrie has also pointed to the unacceptable variation of reported figures to the public and government of staff losses – estimating that this accounts for up to 500 positions in this university alone.

And even worse still, at a time when the Morrison government has indicated that Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities may not be offering Australia an “optimal model for the quality of teaching or research”, the scene is being set for a possible return to a binary system in higher education. After the 2019 Coaldrake Report’s insistence that (real) universities should be involved in both research and teaching, these impacts on the quality of teaching in Education schools are indeed alarming. Regulations that institutions are required to meet in the HES are simply not being met. While some universities clearly consider that this can be disguised for a short time, the academic risks are enormous, and some universities are clearly making no effort to sustain the quality of their Education faculties.  

This is particularly noticeable in relation to the Coaldrake requirements for universities to be producing high-quality, world standard  research in the disciplines they wish to teach – and it is now a matter of urgency for Education faculties around the country. A recent report into the critical need for addressing research with education faculties  cites Coaldrake to argue that these events are not just bad luck or bad timing for Education. The university ideal of retaining both teaching and research in one academic position is fundamental to the teaching-research nexus in academic work. It seems “more than a minor oversight that the move to increase teaching-only positions in many universities also prevents them from doing research” (pp.52-53).

But while teaching is suffering, research is in dire straits.

In many institutions, even those that have not yet had academic job losses, staff report that this is happening.  At UTS, at Flinders, at QUT, “People are stretched, and time for research for most is limited. Some struggle to find time even for service or HDR supervision because they are doing so much teaching and have so many students to mark for.”

As the AARE national survey of staff in Education schools and faculties has found, education research is becoming a luxury.  Their data shows that “education research is now not only being subsidized by significant amounts of unpaid labour but also the direct financial contributions of individual academics trying to keep their main form of research development available” (Brennan et al., 2020, p. 36). One academic in one of the few Faculties of Education left in Australia speaks of how her research profile is only being sustained by “the generosity of colleagues in other institutions”, as her teaching workload allows no time to contribute to the writing up of their research.  

The example of the decline of Education at UTS shows the inevitable result of these circumstances. As staffing cuts led to the structural changes noted above, staff tell how in the new Faculty they were presented with data about the ‘viability’ of Education as a discipline. It is not surprising that fewer staff produce less research income and fewer high impact publications. As one staff member says:  “We’d lost so many of our Level D and E academics over time, and Level Cs were expected to demonstrate research leadership beyond their experience.

It is clear that both education research and teaching are under threat in our universities as well as in our university system.  Education is the key to any sort of future for Australia, and while every state appears to be facing imminent teacher shortages, the complicity of universities in allowing the quality of education research and teaching, at the present time, is a serious concern that should be worrying TEQSA as well as our politicians. 

Jo-Anne Reid is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University. She has collaborated on a range of national competitive grants over her career, focussing on primary/secondary literacy and English teaching, teacher education, minority-group and Indigenous teachers, literacy and the environment, and rural teacher education.