Australian educational research – getting your facts right

On the 19th March 2013, Alan Tudge MP, made a speech criticising the quality of educational research in Australia. The text of the speech is here. It includes the following statements.

“We are spending billions on education research, but it is not having the impact it should. Worse, our education faculties are failing to be engines for ideas at a time when school outcomes have dropped despite a huge increase in public funds for school education.”

“… it is a waste of public money if education research is not of a high standard and is not having impact. Over the last decade $1.7 billion has been spent on education research. It is a sector that has been growing steadily each and every year and now employs almost 3,000 people. If the ARC’s report is indicative of the decade, then we can say that nearly a billion dollars has been spent on below standard work. What would an extra billion dollars have achieved in, say, biotechnology, a research field that is universally at or above world standard? 

… education faculties are not having an impact at a time when high quality, evidence-based research is desperately needed.”

Bernard Lane, then working at The Australian, approached the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) for comment. I prepared the following notes for ACDE and the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE).

Since the notes were written, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) have reversed some of the decisions that made educational research’s footprint unnecessarily hard to assess in the ERA exercises.

The number of free-standing education faculties has continued to diminish.

Notes from 26 March 2013.

Point 1: ERA’s definition of Education isn’t what Alan Tudge means by Education

Alan Tudge appears not to understand that the ERA definition of educational research doesn’t align with how universities are organised internally. We (AARE & ACDE) conducted a survey last year to learn more about what’s behind the ERA figures. 

It turns out that around 40% of the educational research assessed in ERA2010 and ERA2012 was produced by people who do NOT work in departments/faculties of education. 

Much of this research is being conducted by other university academics as part of improving their own approaches to teaching – these people are found in all departments/faculties. Their research is not about schools – it’s about higher education, which is generally judged to be an Australian success story. 

Also, not all the research done in education departments/faculties is labelled Education in ERA. The classification system used in ERA (designed by the ABS) excludes the following from Education: educational psychology (including how people learn), educational policy (including how to design and manage better education systems), sociology of education (e.g. understanding how social disadvantage effects educational outcomes). 

The ABS defined Education in such a way that these key areas are NOT included in the statistics or the ERA results for Education. Some of Australia’s most prolific educational researchers (esp. in psychology of education) find that their work is not classified as Education by the ABS and ERA. 

Point 2: He hasn’t caught up with the fact that there are very few free-standing departments & faculties of Education any more. 

Most are mixed into larger social science and/or professional education schools/faculties. His ‘aunt sally’ (or the straw man he’s trying to attack) isn’t there any more.

This makes it harder than it used to be to identify someone as being ‘from Education’ – so when Mr Tudge says that ‘education academics are missing’ (from debates in the print media) one wonders how he knows who is from Education & who not (or even, whether that’s a sensible question any more).   

Point 3: The international footprint of Australian educational research has put it among the top 3-4 fields of Australian research during the last decade – the period during which Mr Tudge reckons we were wasting money. ARC Annual reports, on several occasions during the last decade, have used the success of education research as an indicator of the international visibility of all the research ARC funds.

Point 4: Education research (on the ERA definition) is underfunded compared to other fields/disciplines. 

ERA2010 data showed that for every (full-time equivalent) Education researcher there is around $17k of funding per year; the equivalent figure for Studies in Human Society (sociology etc) is $36K, Economics $44k, Biology $90k, Medicine/Health $152k per full-time equivalent researcher. 

Point 5: Education (FoR13) has improved 2010-2012

Using the ARC ERA data, 12 universities have improved their rating, 3 have gone down. There’s no room for complacency, but these are encouraging signs of improvement.

Peter Goodyear, Professor of Education, University of Sydney. (Led a joint AARE/ACDE initiative 2011/12 on building Australian educational research capacity.)

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