Melbourne. THE Australian government last week awarded what it claims is the world's richest prize to ten academics for the quality of their teaching.
In the first ceremony of its kind to be held in Australia, prime minister John Howard presented prizes to the three women and seven men at what was described as an "Oscar-style'' occasion in Parliament House, Canberra.
The Australian University Teaching Awards were established by former education minister Amanda Vanstone, and are worth Aus$40,000 (Pounds 16,666) each. Announcing the awards Senator Vanstone said that they were the world's top government-sponsored prizes for university teaching.
A further $35,000 was added to create the "Prime Minister's University Teacher of the Year''. That title, and $75,000, was won by historian Tom Stannage from the University of Western Australia.
The Australian National University and the University of Tasmania were each awarded a $100,000 institutional prize for support for the special needs of international students and for services to Australian students respectively.
Academics from all public and private universities in Australia were eligible to be nominated for the awards. Students were represented on the judging panel, and the committee also used student feedback in picking the winners.
The prize for indigenous teaching went to Pearl Wymarra from the University of Western Sydney. Accepting her trophy, Ms Wymarra looked around the 33 elaborately prepared tables with their multi-pronged candelabras and spluttering candles and said: "Thank you for inviting me to your campfire.'' Senator Vanstone had said earlier that the awards were intended to highlight innovative and practical approaches to student services that assisted learning both on and off campus. Winners are expected to use the prize money to further their teaching.
Speaking at the awards ceremony, federal education minister David Kemp, a former professor of politics, said the government would maintain "the world standing of the awards".
Mr Stannage endorsed proposals in the recent West report on the future of higher education in Australia, which called for teaching "and scholarly professional practice'' to be valued at least as much as, and preferably more than, research. He told The Australian newspaper that teaching had to be given a higher priority and that education ministries needed to be much more supportive publicly of teachers. The report called for rewarding good teaching by paying more or improving conditions of employment.
It proposed a voucher-type funding system, in which money follows students as a means of creating a direct relationship between revenue and the ability to attract students through good teaching.
The report also suggested the creation of a centre for the promotion of university teaching and the development of teacher training opportunities along the lines proposed by the Dearing committee. But Mr Stannage said he preferred "mentoring'' over a formal system of training, which he said could turn people "into automata''.