It would be a sad, narrow world in which there was only one way to do things well – just one road to excellence. Students are diverse, and there are many ways to help them learn and succeed.
In recent years – even before the development of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – policymakers have placed increasing emphasis on “teaching excellence”. The phrase is now part of the higher education lexicon, taking pole position in prospectuses, strategic plans and websites.
Whatever your view on the current components of the TEF, there are few who would disagree that it’s right to recognise, incentivise, and champion teaching excellence in all its forms. But it is far trickier to understand what these diverse forms are, defining their features, and being explicit about what makes them excellent. Now that the Higher Education and Research Act has passed into law, and the first TEF ratings imminent, the need to do this is pressing.
It is incumbent on universities and mission groups to engage actively with this agenda, not just in their own interests, but for the good of the whole higher education sector. At University Alliance, we are pleased to be launching our own contribution: the Teaching Excellence Alliance (TEA). This will develop, define and champion our universities’ unique models of excellence, as well as support continuous improvement and professional development for teaching staff, sharing and building on best practice and innovation.
(Social) capital and industry
The two core elements of our model of excellence are engagement with industry, employers and the professions, and the development of our students’ social capital. Alliance universities have a long and proud tradition of equipping students for life – of helping them stand out and thrive. We take the settings and challenges which students will encounter in the workplace right into the classroom, through courses co-designed, and co-assessed, with employers, industry and the professions. Before our students leave university to start work, perhaps as engineers or nurses, designers or business managers, we want them to have had experience of the real world and to leave with the confidence to tackle the unfamiliar and solve the problems of tomorrow – both those we know about and those we have not yet conceived.
Students’ contact with the challenges they’ll face in the workplace start on day one, not only through tutors who have experience in industry or the professions (although that is important too) but through current, live problems which are made an integral part of the learning experience and assessment, blending high-level academic and technical skills. This is best achieved by designing courses with employers and other external partners involved from the start.
For example, Sheffield Hallam University’s criminology students have worked with young people in local communities exploring their use of social media. This grew from a conversation with South Yorkshire police regarding cyber-bullying. Similarly, at the University of Salford, the latest emergent research and partnerships with industry within our Digital and Creative Industrial Collaboration Zone have led to a digital sandpit, engaging colleagues in the development and application of emergent technologies. This directly impacts student learning; for example, through development of immersive pedagogies in Nursing. These are real challenges brought to us by major employers with benefits extending well beyond the learning for our students.
But getting to university is only the starting point when it comes to developing social capital. Our universities aspire to provide students from all backgrounds with life-changing opportunities, paying attention to every step on a student’s journey, empowering and supporting them to succeed, from first click to last contact after graduation. In particular, we focus on key points in the first year, making sure students settle in and learn how to take on the demands of their course, becoming lifelong learners. We’re there at every transition point, to support and enable. For example, the University of South Wales underpins their course design process with the rich research base about what supports students to make a success of higher education, ensuring a consistently high level of support built round the individual students.
The Teaching Excellence Alliance will take the best work we are doing as individual institutions to drive this model of excellence forward for us all. In turn, this will help us support the roll out of the TEF as it continues to be refined, bringing into greater relief a distinct model of teaching excellence. Much of this is already happening within my own institution, the University of Salford.
Similarly there are other initiatives at Alliance universities elsewhere which I would love to see adapted and adopted here at Salford. This is exactly what the TEA aims to deliver: shared expertise and examples, the development of excellent teaching and learning and the facilitation of cross-sector collaboration and working, towards making more of our provision and the futures of our students, most excellent.
A longer version of this article with further examples of distinctive Alliance pedagogy are published on the University Alliance website.