Australia may lose its edge as a leader in legal education if funding is withdrawn from the Office of Learning and Teaching, academics have warned.
Under the recent federal budget, the government plans to cut $20.9 million over four years from the Promotion of Excellence in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education program (PELTHE).
The PELTHE program provides researchers with grants and fellowships to study education methods under the Office of Learning and Teaching, as well as running an awards and citations program.
The budget papers show the activities of the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) will be scrapped, with the remaining $17.9 million worth of funding underpinning the awards and citations program only.
Professor Sally Kift, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) of James Cook University and president of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows, warned that abolishing the OLT would cause the quality of Australian legal education to suffer.
“The sorts of grants, awards and fellowships that have made a critical contribution to the quality of Australian legal education to date will no longer be available,” she said.
“We will no longer have the opportunity, as an Australian legal education sector, to collaborate on enhancing practice.”
In particular, she warned that Australia may lose its place on the world stage as a legal education innovator.
“To date, what has happened is that the Office for Learning and Teaching has positioned Australia well among global leaders in legal education – I think it’s fairly acknowledged that we are certainly right up there, if not the global leader, in the quality of our legal education,” she said.
“We’re concerned we will lose that edge and that capacity to keep refreshing our curriculum to re-attune with modern professional practice.”
Professor Kift suggested that the move was particularly concerning in light of the government’s innovation agenda, which she said ought to encourage education research.
“The government is keen to invest $1.1 billion over four years in an innovation strategy for the ideas boom – and most of that money is going into research and research infrastructure,” she said.
“We would say that you need to invest in learning and teaching innovation and investing in innovative practitioners and entrepreneurial practitioners, who are equipped with the skills we need to interact with the dynamic, globalised workforce.”
In her view, the OLT has been instrumental in helping legal education move beyond the Priestley 11 to teach students soft skills and address mental health challenges.
“I think the impact[s] that OLT and its predecessors have had have been out of proportion to its size and its funding,” she said. “It’s a relatively modest investment for great impact and outcomes and positions us well.”
Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson also decried the funding cuts.
“The OLT was supported by a small amount of funding but was making a big difference for teachers and students, including projects to improve teaching excellence and retention of students,” she said.
She praised the budget for boosting resources to the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA), but warned the loss of the OLT would leave a gap.
“While universities are pleased to see the additional resources for TEQSA, it should not be at the expense of the highly effective OLT,” Ms Robinson said.