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Let’s go fly a kite: Teaching and learning

Top wonks from across the sector share interesting ideas on teaching and learning within UK higher education
This article is more than 5 years old

Dr Camille B. Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education at Imperial College London

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

Charles Heymann is a consultant in strategic communications and reputation management.

Louis was an Associate Editor at Wonkhe.

Medieval Fees

Camille Kandiko Howson – Academic Head of Student Engagement, King’s College London

Students have legitimate questions about how their tuition fees are spent, and annual surveys show students and institutions have different spending priorities. For students, teaching tops the list. Students also report a lack of information about the teaching on offer—because, despite the wealth of data produced for the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), students remain in the dark about what matters to them: the number of hours they will have in small setting with knowledgeable, trained teaching staff.

And speaking of staff, the casualisation of teaching staff is becoming endemic in universities. Some universities give a couple of weeks’ notice for a lecturer to design and plan a module, when they do not know the institution, course, other staff or the students. What if going back, way back, could help?

The medieval university tuition fee model could be a surprising disruptor to the status quo. In the early days, students at Oxbridge paid tuition fees directly to those who taught them. There was a variable market rate, with higher rates for better teachers. All the teaching staff who cannot get, or do not want, permanent contracts can set up shop, selling their modules. As students would be shoppers, the information would be focused on what mattered to them. And they would know where their money went—straight to the teachers.

And how to turn this into a degree? Use the already established University of London External Degree programme, a prototype for standardised tests being considered by the sector to measure learning gain and account for what students are getting from their education.

Getting less special

Mike Ratcliffe – Academic Registrar, Nottingham Trent University

We’ve not seen much joined-up policy making from DfE since it took back FE & HE in 2016, so this could be a big opportunity. The biggest prize would be to move against the over-specialisation of courses. Over-specialisation at 18 sets in train specialisation at 16, 14 and 11. It drives an over-reliance on knowledge-based exams, which means students and their families making choices earlier and earlier. The criticism was in Robbins and Dearing and has been picked up by Willetts. It even confounds those who would see ‘switching’ as the perfect market solution. In this specialised model, we prioritise knowledge; a proper University Challenge episode should be two interdisciplinary teams working on a problem for 30 minutes, not barking out facts as quickly as possible.

So, accepting all we hold dear about the autonomy of universities, why not have DfE drive broader first years? In turn that could allow more general study at 16, enable more switching of paths, enable students to range more along the continuum of ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ paths, allow students to build up a wider pattern of qualifications. Broader qualifications could see switching if you want, but also lifelong learning as students could have more learning skills. Do what Dearing suggested and admit students to faculties, not courses.

This would help DfE act on Simon Marginson’s idea that the value of higher education should be made more equal between institutions. We are too dominated by hierarchy; that diminishes the importance of the diversity of approaches that we take. The preoccupation with knowledge enhances the fake dichotomy between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ higher education, which fades off into a further, but lower, category of ‘technical’ education. That helps DfE sell technical education, by not creating it as a fixed path at 11, 14, 16 or even 18.

Scrap the TEF – and start again

Charles Heymann – HE reputation advisor

No publicly-backed institution should be above scrutiny. But who are they accountable to? What are they accountable for? And how are they made accountable? Former minister Jo Johnson designed the TEF to hold universities’ feet to the flame: to ensure that students’ investment in undergraduate degrees was assessed and in his original plan, to incentivise higher standards with the power to raise more tuition income.

After three years piloting, TEF remains an egregious case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Ministers, civil servants and the vast majority of higher education leaders publicly back it – yet hand on heart, very few truly believe in it. It has a host of clashing and overlapping objectives: benchmarking and differentiating performance; acting as a lever to raise standards; informing and driving student choice at 18; shaping business and investment decisions; triggering intervention (internally or externally); and demonstrating overall return for public funding. It falls short on each one, and it is tough to argue convincingly that TEF will ever truly measure excellence in a meaningful way across 300 higher education providers and tens of thousands of courses nationally. No one has a clear idea if teaching quality is rising and if it is, what is driving it.

So the statutory independent TEF review, chaired by Dame Shirley Pearce, presents a real opportunity to tackle these shortfalls when it reports in the summer. It could decide that while the TEF will never be perfect but it is better than nothing. And it might add a tweak here and there, in particular, equipping institutions to explain, interpret and communicate the outcomes better.

Or it could recommend ministers cut their losses and go back to the drawing board and build consensus – indeed under the terms of reference, it can go as far as ruling TEF is not in the public interest. This would be a chance to design a much more effective accountability system which coordinated and consistent across the whole post-18 tertiary system. It would allow us to recognise the actual social, economic and civic context higher education operates in, not just be overly reliant on a limited set of metrics. And it could create a positive accountability system which supports, not undermines, the full range of teaching provision we need as a society collectively and as individuals, at every stage of our lives.

A national academic rotation scheme

Louis Coiffait – Associate Editor, Wonkhe

Each UK university is an autonomous island, inhabited by a community of free-thinking scholars. This system has many benefits, but also some weaknesses.

Academic career paths can be tight-rope walks. Individuals must research and publish, but also teach, and have impact, and commercialise, and engage the public. The list goes on. And yet, the support and training available is completely variable. Additional responsibilities can be sudden and haphazard.  Most academics only experience a handful of employers over the course of their careers, reinforcing the hierarchy and status quo within institutions. Innovation and improvement can be stifled by tradition. Silos exist within as well as between universities.

Altogether, this situation risks making academics, institutions and the entire HE sector slow to adapt to change. Many other professions – from doctors to civil servants – have a solution to this issue, early-career rotation schemes

A national early-career rotation scheme for academics would give them experience working in three other universities. It could be a two-year programme in total, featuring two six-month placements then a third lasting a year. Administration would be at a national level. Rotations would help participants develop broader understanding and loyalty to their profession and their sector, beyond institution and subject. They would develop new skills, be responsible for projects, and broaden their knowledge and network in the process. It should be challenging but engaging and fun too.

The scheme would attract a broad range of people, from those keen to develop their teaching skills by seeing how others do it, to those wanting to expand their knowledge of the wider HE sector by learning how different universities are run, to those focused on inter-disciplinary research. The scheme could be optional and competitive, with blind applications assessed across a wide range of criteria. Although not a fast-track scheme per se, it would likely help those seeking to develop their leadership and management.potential. However, all participants would gain an understanding of how universities are run and where they fit in the system.  An agreed national code of good practice would help to guide all parties. And there would be the option to extend a placement should the fit be particularly good.

Academic research is necessarily a specialist and narrow path at times. However, that doesn’t mean the people taking that route shouldn’t be given a broad base of experiences, knowledge and skills – as this would benefit them and the sector they work in.

8 responses to “Let’s go fly a kite: Teaching and learning

  1. TEF – A teaching excellence framework that has no metrics that actually explore teaching excellence. What is more disappointing is the way that we (as a HE community) are running round trying to game this system, balancing against the REF (teaching only contracts being a major issue at the moment). Maybe as a community we need to start giving TEF the contempt it deserves, and move the debate out of the echo chambers of Wonk and THE

  2. All of the systems I have seen in place to measure ‘teaching quality’, from module reviews, the annual monitoring of taught schemes, the National Student Survey, TEF, and a good deal else, get nowhere near actually measuring teaching quality. Worse, they don’t even measure whether what is being taught in the classroom is actually correct; I am certain that some of what is taught in some places is factually incorrect. We need to set our best brains on how to improve what is taught, in addition to how it is taught.

  3. Regarding Mike Ratcliffe’s article on Getting less special – this is a refreshing idea to provide more generalised education including the first year of a UG degree. Young people having to make career choices early in their teens to focus on narrow avenues of knowledge which leads not only to stress their formative years, but reduces opportunities for more wider learning that develops better human beings who have a wider knowledge of the world around them. Specialising so early limits students opportunity to transfer between subject areas and also limits cross fertilisation of ideas.
    One of the challenges universities face though is where programmes are determined by professional/regulatory bodies that require a full three year curriculum with little room for wider learning.
    A really interesting read. Thank you.

  4. Sally, thanks.

    I’d be keen on the UK looking at more general education at a higher level, but the history of how our curriculum has developed has taken us away from that. The Melbourne Model made a splash by trying to deal with that, and where a professional body requirements were too restrictive, say with law, they tried to move this from UG to PGT (in a way similar to the US model).

  5. Would the medieval model not become the Deliveroo model in the 21st Century, those who can control the means of distribution and communication will make the money, while the teachers will be sat out on their bikes waiting to be told when the student needs their learning?

  6. Responding to Mike Ratcliffe’s article on Getting less special – you are absolutely right about overspecialisation and the need for a comprehensive, joined-up policy change. It is particularly hard to change any one part independent of the others. There are models of first year general education in the UK. Scotland is not so rigid. My own institution, Keele University, was established around that interdisciplinary principle with a common first year experience. It evolved into an American-style elective system across all three years that remains today, though it is mainly for the humanities and social sciences. However, even when given that freedom, students who are so specialised prove very reluctant to take classes outside of their chosen subject. Most degree programs are becoming more specialised, despite the rhetoric around interdisciplinarity, and at secondary level the virtual elimination of flexible AS level provision has made this situation even worse.

  7. Oh Mike.. “a proper University Challenge episode should be two interdisciplinary teams working on a problem for 30 minutes, not barking out facts as quickly as possible”. Yes, because that works so well on The Apprentice…

  8. Right, it also assumes that all students are of pure and noble intentions. A teachers might garner a reputation for an “easy A” becoming more popular, and able to raise rates with demand. Another teacher might have a public (from research etc.) persona but terrible pedagogy and still amass a following for the networking opportunity or CV clout.

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