Why we must take the pulse of education research in Australia now

By Catherine Manathunga

Australian education research is at a key turning point in a pandemic world where the dramatic effects of climate change demand our urgent attention. This blog piece explores the current challenges facing Australian Education research and the contemporary opportunities to create a future radical agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research. This piece has been adapted from the Community of Associate Deans of Education Research (cADRE) address* that I presented on 29 June at the recent AARE/cADRE Education Research Leaders’ Summit hosted by Professor Anna Sullivan on Kaurna Land at the University of South Australia. 

In Australia, we are in a post-election phase. We will have a new Labor government and a new Minister of Education, Jason Clare. We also have a number of other key federal portfolios that will particularly impact upon our sector including Linda Burney, Minister of Indigenous Australians; Ed Husic, Minister of Industry and Science and Anne Aly, Minister of Early Childhood Education and Youth. Australia has voted for change after a long period of Coalition government. 

Education research encompasses a rich transdisciplinary field including all education sectors such as home, early childhood, compulsory school years, senior secondary, higher education, vocational education, professional education, community, transitional and adult learning as well as initial and ongoing teacher education. Our field faces a series of external wicked problems, particularly demoralisation and burnout because of university job losses at a time, as Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins wrote earlier this year, when many universities report large profits. We face a severe lack of grant funding for education research with a significant decline in ARC funding. There is a pressing need to improve the national profile of educational research at a time of extreme change and cutbacks and a significant restriction of opportunities for HDR, early and mid-career academics to build research momentum because of excessive workloads and unrealistic performance goals. We witness the increasing casualization of higher education and more colleagues moving to teaching-focused positions. Science-based metrics are used to inaccurately measure education research outcomes and education researchers experience shrinking time for research and the narrowing of the purposes of universities to vocational skill development (Brennan et al., 2020 AARE Working Party report).

We have seen the previous Australian government increasingly outsourcing education research to organisations and groups outside of universities such as external organisations like AERO and private consultancies, NFPs, philanthropies and corporations. The previous Coalition government’s Australia’s Economic Accelerator (AEA) initiative committed significant funding to the commercialisation of Australian research as part of a package designed to improve commercialisation in Australia’s 6 research priorities which are all in areas of manufacturing. As Professor Tom Lowrie indicated in the recent cADRE/ACDE webinar, this funding initiative will not assist education. However, other funding possibilities include incubator and start-up hubs, philanthropic support, angel investors may be interested in funding our research. The previous government has also introduced funding for industry PhDs and fellowships. These priorities are likely to continue under the new Labor Government. It is, as Emeritus Professor Marie Brennan argued in the cADRE/ACDE webinar, ‘a dangerous time’ for education research in Australia.

There are also a number of key internal challenges also facing Australian education research. Firstly, we need to take a more collegial approach to peer reviewing for ARC grants, ERA, and other competitive research activities. This is an issue facing not only education but HASS as a whole. We also need to improve collaboration between universities and resist the pressure to endlessly compete for very scarce resources. There is a need to think creatively about succession planning in our field given the dramatic changes we are witnessing in the education research workforce with the retirement or retrenchment of many senior researchers; the lack of academic positions available to replace these experienced colleagues; the challenges many Senior Lecturers and Associate Professors face in gaining promotion given the dominance of science metrics to measure academic success in all fields and the difficulties early and mid-career education researchers are experiencing in building and sustaining research momentum. Professor Stephen Billett argued in the cADRE/ACDE webinar that this amounts to ‘a withering of the academic workforce’. Across Australia, Associate Deans of Research in Education report strong cultures of teaching in the field of Education which detract from a focus on research. Deans of Education are often focused on the budget-generating, politicised and rapidly shifting field of Initial Teacher Education to the detriment of other domains of Education research. 

cADRE would like to argue for a radical agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research that informs educational policy and practice. This would challenge the empty rhetoric of ‘excellence’ that we hear so much about in universities. Back in 1996, US scholar Bill Readings was one of the first people to query the ways in which the discourse of ‘excellence’ was replacing the development of culture as the key driving force in universities. While excellence has a convenient ring to it for university managers and governments, we believe we should be seeking transformational or disruptive Education research that has the power to make a real difference to the lives of Australian people of all ages. 

Inclusive and compassionate education research would take a strengths-based approach to the education of all Australians, especially the education of First Nations, migrant, refugee, culturally diverse peoples, people who are differently abled, and all other sections of Australian society. An inclusive and compassionate education research agenda would broaden the scope education research ‘beyond the school/university fence’ to include public, adult, parental, environmental, civil and community education as Professor Stephen Billett argued in our webinar. It would advocate for the commitment of research funding and other resources to foster education research. It would engage in active and genuine partnerships with all of the important education stakeholders, particularly teachers, students, families, communities, Elders, organisations and citizens, to generate grass roots education research agenda setting using the scalable methodologies used in the NSW Deans grass roots education research agenda setting project, including artists who document and sketch the ideas put forward in world café style dialogues, as Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie Knowles outlined in the cADRE/AARE webinar. It would engage in respectful education research with, for and by these communities and citizens. It would provide for a dedicated and respectful focus in Education research on Indigenous knowledge in all domains of education including climate science. Inclusive and compassionate education research would be based on a relational, post-feminist ethics of care approach. 

There is also an important need for the federal Labor government to significantly broaden the national research priorities. There were significant calls at the AIATSIS Summit held on Kabi Kabi Country on the Sunshine Coast from 30 May to 3 June for the national priorities to include Indigenous issues. HASS fields also need to be reinstated as a matter of national research priority given the contribution HASS fields make to research innovation, creativity, transformation and inclusion. We need to lobby the Federal Minister for national targeted research funding for Education that goes beyond the narrow instrumentalist focus of AERO. 

We also need to shift the focus on the exchange value of education research or education research as a commodity on sale to the knowledge economy to Education research’s use value as Emeritus Professor Marie Brennan argued in our cADRE/ACDE webinar. This would involve engaging in research translation, where we educate the public about the value of the research we produce so that our research becomes publicly discussible for the community and for practitioners as well as governments, bureaucrats and funders. These strategies would consolidate our evidence about the Impact and Engagement value of our field in preparation for the ERA Impact and Engagement exercise in 2024.

AARE and ACDE are currently developing a coherent action plan for proactive strategies to enhance the national profile of inclusive and compassionate education research in Australia well into the future. Watch this space!

While I wrote this address, I would like to acknowledge that it was collaboratively workshopped with members of the cADRE Network Steering Group and built upon the recommendations developed at the cADRE/ ACDE webinar Reimagining education research in a post-election world that was held on 27 May (for video recording see https://www.acde.edu.au/networks-and-partnerships/cadre/ ).

Professor Catherine Manathunga, University of the Sunshine Coast; Chair of Community of Associate Deans of Education Research (cADRE – a network of the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) 

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

2 thoughts on “Why we must take the pulse of education research in Australia now

  1. Tina Daniel says:

    This is a brilliant address and I’m grateful seeing I was unable to attend. . Brava!

  2. Tom Worthington says:

    To take the pulse of education research in Australia I suggest we need technology. My doctor doesn’t get out an analog stopwatch to check my pulse, instead there is an electronic device for that. These are now so cheap I have one at home. The same change in thinking, and practice is needed for Australian education research.

    Due to the pandemic, Australian education research has caught up to were higher education the students already were in 2019: mostly studying online.

    An agenda for inclusive and compassionate education research doesn’t have to be radical. In 2020 feeling isolated by COVID-19 from my usual education research events I drifted towards the excellent online events hosted by ACSILITE, and found myself collaborating with a group of people online, who I have never met in person. This proved productive, and continues today, across three countries.

    Geography has been an easy gap to bridge with technology. Much harder is the transdisciplinary one, and I work in a twilight zone between my original discipline of computer, and my new one of education. If the gap between education and the disciplines it supports, and support it, the decline research funding can be reversed. This can be done by drawing on the funding for those disciplines, and also presenting a compelling case for increased research to address the current skills shortage, energy shortage, defence climate, and other challenges.

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