Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Slashed OLT represents lost opportunities for innovation in DRR

2015 represented an important year for disaster scholars, with the release of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March, the launch of new Sustainable Development Goals in New York in September, and the December agreement for carbon emission reduction at COP21 under the UNFCCC in Paris. The value and the effectiveness of these international agreements are certainly open to debate. George Monbiot (2004, p.75) questions the democratic value of the UN, arguing that 'the nation states tacitly conspire against their peoples,' and that 'we the people' in the UN Charter should read 'we the States.' Furthermore, if we do not start questioning our current methods of production, consumption, and development, any well-intentioned international frameworks may ultimately represent no more than empty promises

At their best, these milestones can enable a new roadmap in research, policy, and practice of DRR to emerge that will enable us to move forward significantly in the next 15 years. We must interrogate governance; the role of the State, the private sector and local communities and the balance of power; as well as understanding how various issues from globalisation to climate change contribute to shape exposure and vulnerability, and become imperative in DRR science. Such a roadmap must inform teaching and learning related to disaster risk reduction in higher education. The increase in the number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses and programs exploring disasters and related issues illustrates the recognition of the challenges faced by the global community and therefore an emerging market to train experts. However, higher education is also shifting and we onus is on educators to develop better ways to engage learners that may not actually be participating in learning activities in the same place or time. 

Haigh and Amaratunga (2015) developed a roadmap for the ANDROID research network, which gathers different universities and scholars with different backgrounds and perspectives related to disaster resilience, DRR, and CCA. In this roadmap, the main challenge presenting for disaster resilience in higher education is the reduction of the policy–science gap, insomuch that research be translated to action.

Five critical opportunities and challenges for higher education were identified:
1. linking research, education and action;
2. integrating all hazards, stakeholders and disciplines;
3. collaborating regionally and globally;
4. facilitating policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity development; and
5. developing flexible and customisable education programmes.

At the University of Newcastle, we are somewhat unique in that we teach disaster resilience/DRR into our Bachelor of Construction Management degree. We do this because we believe that DRR needs to be a core competency in built environment professions. In our Master of Disaster Preparedness and Reconstruction, we progress to a much more detailed exploration of various elements of disasters. 

In 2015 we launched the RES-SIM project, a collaboration with RMIT and funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT). This project proposes to develop the conceptual model for a virtually distributed computer-based teaching and learning tool that enables students within and across disciplines (e.g. engineering, architecture, logistics), both on and off campus, to collaboratively acquire essential decision-making skills through immersion in a dynamic disaster system simulation. 

The research team works with practitioners to develop
disaster scenarios
Our field work gave us the opportunity to interview and share knowledge with eminent scholars in DRR, information technology and construction management. It also allowed us to meet volunteers and practitioners involved in emergency management across New South Wales and Victoria, to talk with them about procedures, priorities, and expectations, and to build a network for knowledge exchange and future collaboration. The 1 year project has represented an opportunity, as academic scholars, to contribute to reducing the gap between our world and that of practitioners and volunteers, contributing to the central necessity outlined in the ANDROID roadmap. 

This grant by the OLT gave us the seed funding to do something otherwise not possible. 

Workshops allow educators and practitioners to describe
their world as a system
At the end of June, the OLT will cease to offer any new projects, based on cuts announced in the federal budget. We had advanced warning of this since 2015, but a commitment previously made to establish a successor 'institute' for research in teaching and learning has now also been scrapped. The closure of the OLT, as well as the loss of its grants and fellowships, removes from Australian higher education the national commitment to innovation and improved performance in learning and teaching (Gardner, 2016).

The closure of the OLT is a dark day for both researchers and citizens who believe in the betterment of countries and societies through education, culture, and engagement. Under a cloak of 'innovation' and 'industry engagement' the government has set its own agenda above that of the people. We must therefore stand up against these cuts and proclaim that research for the common good is of value. We have a democratic society and it is time for the government to recognise the will of the people over corporate interests. 


Gardner M. (2016). Innovation in teaching and learning is too important to cut. The Conversation.

Haigh, R., & Amaratunga, D. (2015). Moving from 2015 to 2030: challenges and opportunities for higher educationInternational Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment6(3).

Monbiot, G. (2004) The age of consent. HarperPerennial.