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Wicked problems: what should be included in the HE curriculum?

Does the curriculum deliver the right balance of knowledge and skills? And whose job is it to decide? Dave Phoenix, Gilly Salmon and Mary Curnock Cook call for fresh thinking
This article is more than 4 years old

Professor David Phoenix is Vice Chancellor of London South Bank University.

Gilly Salmon is chief executive and principal consultant at Education Alchemists, Ltd. 

Mary Curnock Cook OBE is chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a former chief executive of UCAS

Employers should be involved in, not driving, the design of higher qualifications

Dave Phoenix, London South Bank University

In seeking to ensure students are “fit for the modern workplace”, the government has increasingly involved employers in the design and delivery of education programmes. The clearest example is the new apprenticeship standards for which Trailblazer employer groups have designed occupational standards including for apprenticeships at higher and degree level. These standards are also informing the new T levels and potentially new higher technical qualifications at levels four and five.

Many universities, including London South Bank, embrace the involvement of employers in developing courses whether that is through professional bodies or more directly through employer advisory panels. However, the new emphasis on “employer-led” education raises questions about the balance between providing education to support a career and simply training for a job.

Apprenticeship standards have received criticism for being too job-specific and static at a time when rapid changes are occurring in the workplace (Germany has around 330 standards in total while the UK already has 513 standards approved for delivery with another 110 in development). Some of these UK standards are extremely narrow – for example, Builder Services Engineering Ductwork Installer.

Although the limitations of the higher and degree apprenticeship standards are arguably overcome by the broader education provided by the associated degree, this is not true in the 20+ level six and seven apprenticeships currently approved without any prescribed HE qualification.

To give another example, under the government’s proposals for higher technical qualifications, to qualify for full funding for the delivery of a qualification at level four or five in the future, it is possible that a university may have to submit a qualification to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education for approval. Employers may be clear what skills they want their candidates to have, but I believe few would argue that they are qualified to judge what a higher education qualification should look like.

Most universities would, I believe, endorse the idea of courses being informed by the needs of employers. However, we need to find a way to facilitate educational providers in balancing short term employer (and government) requirements and long term learner needs.

Higher education should be awash with digital curricula and pedagogy

Gilly Salmon, OES

With endless discussion around each wave of “new technology”, why is higher education not awash and confident with innovative embedded beneficial digital technology impacting on learning and student success, carrying along innovative curricula and pedagogy?

Since the emergence of digital technologies in higher education in the 1990s, the more optimistic seers have predicted a range of increasing impact and value on a spectrum from conventional campus-based teaching to the potential of full UK degrees delivered to a needy world. Hail the digital revolution!

There was a glimmer of “networking” for learning, but multimedia was thought to be the new and exciting way of delivering online content, funded by smallish local or EU research grants.

In the noughties we saw social media, Second Life, mobile learning, and open educational resources. The Higher Education Academy and Jisc supported many innovative mini-research projects, with enthusiastic scholars. Where is that all now – does your institution yet have a policy for mobile learning? And RIP, iTunes U.

In the last decade, the draw has been student-centredness, with much less external project money so it’s a lucky academic department that has explored video for learning, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and wearables. Adapting technologies, originally produced for consumers rather than education, has become a necessity. It’s more demanding though. And still typically driven by an experimental academic rather than supported innovation.

Only VLEs became ubiquitous amongst institutions – but with considerable academic grumbling, and nowadays ongoing struggles to change or update them. MOOCs too were the great hope and flavour of the day and have increased in volume but often as a standalone sideline rather than a whole organisational transformation.

Academics are naturally immersed in their own research, professions and disciplines. So it may come as a surprise to some that great conferences have been around for 25 years for sharing findings and new practice about technology-enhanced learning. And journals, properly peer-reviewed and often openly available too.

So, this is my “problem”. Every institution has ambitions to enable better-than-ever student experiences and preparation for their digital futures. All wish that learning technologies and digital environments could provide more return on their investments. There are pilots, pockets and prototypes of innovation but little widespread adoption and proven value of digital technologies on a transformational scale. It’s downright wicked.

Numeracy needs to be a core graduate competence

Mary Curnock Cook

“I just wish they’d arrive knowing at least how to do percentages and fractions”. So said Dr Harriet Jones, biology lecturer at the University of East Anglia. She speaks to a yawning gap in quite basic numeracy skills for a huge proportion of the undergraduate population in the UK.

Based on 2019 exam results, less than 20 per cent of the 2019 intake would have had A level mathematics and of the remaining 80 per cent only around 20 per cent would have achieved a grade seven (A in old money) or better at GCSE.

This points to c. 290K undergraduate students starting university with only a mediocre GCSE grade in mathematics, achieved two years earlier, and unlikely to have done any mathematics at all in the meantime. Even if not degree-grade threatening, lack of numeracy and data skills are a serious drawback in the employment market.

For post-16 and post-18 mathematics there is both an attainment and a participation problem – and it’s wicked. With a mathematics curriculum which is arguably out of date in the digital and computer age, many students struggle with mathematics that appears to have little or no relevance, and where they are being taught to calculate manually things that computers can do better and faster. What they need is to be able to apply mathematics concepts to real-world problems and confidently use computer power to get the answer.

There is a solution, however, which would not involve wholescale reform of the primary and secondary mathematics curriculum. Universities should introduce a (compulsory?) computational thinking curriculum, available at multiple grades – like music exams – so that every student could participate at a level to suit their ability and then graduate with data literacy, statistical and modelling competence, some modern problem-solving skills, and a facility to use computational power to do any heavy number-crunching.

No-one thinks of achieving Grade Two piano as a failure and I’d like to see confident graduates from across the spectrum of STEM and non-STEM courses waving their Grade Two or Grade Eight certificates in computational thinking as they enter the job market. Maybe some of them would emerge confident enough to apply to Dominic Cummings’s call for “weirdos and misfits”.

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