Governance, pedagogy and hallmarks – a challenge

My time as a student governor of what was then Canterbury Christ Church University College, about fifteen years ago, coincided with the early days of that institution’s application for university title.

In the world before our recent streamlined route for title acquisition, this precipitated an arduous and complex process under the aegis of the Privy Council, marshalled by officials in various parts of central government.

As part of the application, the governing body was asked to demonstrate the pedagogical effectiveness of the institution. As I recall this caused some mild bemusement amongst governors – Christ Church had obtained its own taught degree awarding powers nearly a decade earlier, so it wasn’t fully clear why another test should be needed. But as they had set a clear strategy to achieve university status, they would offer a strong response. The reaction of the academic board was almost a mirror image of this. In that room there was recognition that this requirement asked important and searching questions but they were emphatic that it was for the internal council of scholars and not the external council of supervisors to decide the answers.

Heart of performance and compliance

Things have, as we all know, moved on. In today’s HE system, the idea of pedagogical effectiveness is still at its centre – the successful transmission of knowledge and the cultivation of minds. This definition would satisfy the most ardent traditionalists. But let’s be realistic, it is also now much more acutely about competitive advantage, brand, and distinctiveness – taking the institution towards having what Paul Temple has called a “hallmark”. It is about building a reputation in both the narrow sense (“are we well respected?”) and the broad sense (“what are we known for?”).

In the time since I was an undergraduate the rampant possibilities of education technology, and some serious thinking about learning spaces, have transformed pedagogy (where well executed) – but these moves can require enormous long-term funding commitments.

In more recent years pedagogical effectiveness has come to be associated with TEF performance metrics and awards – effectiveness understood as outcomes, relative to one’s competitors. On top of all this, maintaining this effectiveness also seems to go to the heart of compliance with conditions of registration imposed by the OfS, especially B2: “the provider must deliver well designed courses that provide a high quality academic experience for all students and enable a student’s achievement to be reliably assessed” and B3: “the provider must support all students, from admission through to completion, with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education”.

Under pressure

Whichever lens we look through – competitive, financial, risk control, accountability or regulation – decisions about pedagogy are fundamental to the university enterprise. And in the contemporary landscape, the university is without doubt an enterprise under pressure. It seems obvious that academic governance can no longer be devolved within the institution in quite the same way as academic tradition would prefer it, whether to a panoply of committees or to the senior academic officers, or some combination of them working together. Following this it seems equally obvious that, if governing bodies are to exercise more direct influence over pedagogy, they will need a different mix of knowledge and skills, perhaps with stronger validation of some kind.

There is an interesting parallel to today’s clearly expressed position of the OfS that in our new legal and regulatory framework, institutional autonomy is limited, not absolute; it is plain that academic autonomy within the institution is also limited, such that we may need a more sophisticated approach to understanding what counts as academic, and what counts as corporate.

Debating learning

If a university wants to have an internal debate about whether its students should learn in a particular way, where should this happen? Between its academics? Or between its academics, managers, and governors, and indeed, the students themselves? Even the most apparently traditional pedagogies were once quite innovative, and have remained controversial – the Oxbridge tutorial system (pretty much universal within those institutions, albeit with variation of practices), being a case in point. In that case, the widespread move to tutorials was in no small part driven by one unusually activist Oxford vice-chancellor.

Occasionally, there is a clear perspective at inception: the founders of Maastricht University decided from the outset to use problem-based learning methods across all its subjects, and essentially it still does. Accounts of pedagogy in some US universities being completely and centrally overhauled can become bestsellers.

Most universities publicise claims, facts, figures, examples, and the acquisition of any awards, in relation to teaching. However, it remains unusual to see truly clear statements of pedagogic policy at the institutional level.

This is not inherently problematic – I am aware of no regulation, research finding or common sense dictum that says pedagogy ought to be uniform. But in England at least, the quest for a “hallmark” is intensifying, with additional factors like the TEF and section B conditions of the regulatory framework in the background.

A definitive pedagogical style may be seen as an important means by which to achieve brand distinction, strategic precision, and regulatory compliance, but it is also hazardous: in vanquishing pedagogical fuzziness, many treasurable things are at risk of extinction. Figuring this out seems to demand developments in our governance model.

Defining the core product

Writing in 1994, Roger King (then Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, now of the Higher Education Commission) wrote: “it is an interesting, and perhaps remarkable, fact that in higher education the core of the academic enterprise (the course or programme as ‘product’) lies largely outside corporate control”. Citing expansion, efficiency and quality pressures, he forecast that this would go by the wayside and that management and governance would be drawn towards the core product.

And why not? If you went into a board meeting at Netflix, and found the directors never talk about the TV shows, or the user experience, you would think it was very odd. In most football club boardrooms it’s probably quite hard to get them off the topic of football to look at some corporate issues for a bit.

In our system, by contrast, governance still feels strangely disconnected from the stuff that should raise our passions – such as improving the way courses are designed and implemented. Surely university boards are supposed to be key resources of insight and advice, and surely we should try to maximise the quality of this resource and direct it towards meeting the central challenge of academic governance?

This is not, despite well-publicised concerns, to stamp out grade inflation, to bear down on unconditional offers, to drive up teaching intensity, or similar issues. It is to achieve and maintain pedagogical effectiveness in an age of ever more wicked problems.

2 responses to “Governance, pedagogy and hallmarks – a challenge

  1. See OxCHEPS Occasional Paper No.64 for a legal analysis of the role of the Governors as a Board or Council – there are clear duties combined with ckear power and authority that comes with responsibility and also personal financial liability…

  2. Perhaps we could begin by recognising that education, of any kind, is not a product; and that we damage ourselves by accepting the language of corporate management.

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