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Why QILT has triggered a revolution in student choice

Commentators have been warning for years about the avalanche of change hitting the higher education sector, but last week's digital disruption was more of a spring thaw.

It seems somehow appropriate that a website with the cosy name of QILT, (Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching, has many unique features that are melting away the ice around students' views of the performance of all of Australia's higher education institutions. It has the potential to grow into a new mind-set for students and institutions, leading to a greater focus on putting the students' needs first.

What is unique in QILT is that it is based on extensive data from several nation-wide surveys, that are independently administrated by the Social Research Centre, with funding from the Abbott and Turnbull government – it received an extra $8 million in the recent budget.

QILT is a trigger of change, because now the students have their own 'online agent' that, thanks to last week's upgrade, can for the first time access comparative data for degree-level, fully-accredited courses offered at other Australian institutions as well as universities.

Last week's update to QILT was made possible earlier this year when 22,707 students from 39 non-university providers were included in the results of the 2015 Student Experience Survey for the first time. This makes it far more comprehensive and accurate than any other comparison available.

Change will be slow, but is likely to accelerate after September when the next stage is included – adding the results of surveys of employment outcomes. QILT's importance will also grow as more students and institutions realise its potential and get involved and start to recognise the advantages of more choice and diversity.

The QILT comparisons already show that the private sector achieves a great deal for its students. Overall students at private institutions reported high levels of satisfaction in teaching quality, learner engagement and skills development.

Private institutions such as the Photography Studies College in Melbourne, Marcus Oldham College in Geelong and Christian Heritage College in Brisbane may not previously have been on the radar of potential students, but their QILT results prove they ought to be for those interested in the specialist degrees they offer.

Another, albeit behind the scenes, important feature of QILT is that each institution has its own "dashboard" to enable them to review their own detailed results by field of education against the aggregated data for similar courses across the country. This gives the institutions vital insights that can be used to inform continuous improvement of student outcomes.

This website, the extensive data that underpins it and the broad collection of data gathered by the Department of Education should also give the wider community the confidence to recognise that the time has come for equitable support for all students.

The best place to start would be establishing a single loan scheme, so ending the 25 per cent student loan administration fee only levied on undergraduates enrolled outside our public universities. The risks are minimal and the benefits significant. Private institutions have successfully managed FEE-HELP since the introduction in the Higher Education Support Act 2003 with steady and sustainable growth over the ensuing decade.

About 10 per cent of higher education students are already in private institutions despite not receiving any government financial support. Equity also demands that all students should be eligible for HECS too, irrespective of where they study as all institutions are registered by the same regulator.

Student choice would also be increased by allowing the term 'university-college' to be used by institutions that focus on teaching. Scholarship, of which discovery research is a key element, must continue to be a distinctive in higher education teaching.

The QILT website is evidence of the spring that has to come if Australia is not only to hold its own on the international higher education market, but also to provide genuine equity and choice to its own citizens making an investment in life-long learning.

Adrian McComb is chief executive officer of the Council of Private Higher Education.

Published Online. May 16, 2016. Hardcopy - May 23 p.14.

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