The future of learning and teaching in higher education (UK)

Higher education is facing its biggest shakeup in 50 years. But will this improve the quality of teaching and the student experience, asks Janet Murray

In an education white paper published last summer, the coalition government set out its vision for the future of higher education. Underpinning the proposals was the desire to put students at the heart of the system, providing better advice and guidance on what and where to study and more one-to-one support and feedback from lecturers. To achieve this, ministers argued, universities would need to become more accountable for the quality of teaching at their institutions.

A year on from what it is widely considered to be the biggest shakeup of the higher education system for more than 50 years, those working in the sector have a clearer understanding of how this new vision of higher education might work in practice. But according to a roundtable debate, hosted by the Guardian in association with the Higher Education Academy, the national body for enhancing teaching and learning in the UK, there is still some scepticism about the changes.

“It’s trying to turn young people who want to be inspired by what they experience into a bunch of consumers who pore over frankly meaningless data … and turn the university experience into another form of consumerism,” said one participant.

The debate was conducted under the Chatham House rule, which allows comments to be reported without attribution to encourage a frank debate.

Those who took part in the discussion considered the role of teaching and learning in higher education and how that might change over the coming years. Among the topics up for discussion was the role of technology and how this might influence teaching styles, assessment, course content and delivery.

Feedback from students

One of the biggest challenges for those working in the sector is getting accurate feedback from students, the roundtable heard. The reality is most students are “pretty satisfied”, said one contributor. But another disagreed, saying that while most students were enthusiastic about university, they weren’t getting the “spark of excitement” they should be getting from their studies.

There were mixed opinions expressed at the debate on the National Student Survey, which asks students to review their time at university. While one participant said it provided the “best feedback we can get about what students think”, others questioned its value. One participant argued that because most undergraduates only ever go to one university – and are therefore unable to make comparisons – the data is of limited value.

A much more effective way to get feedback from students might be to set up something along the lines of the NHS’s expert patient scheme – a patient-led programme that aims to support those with chronic medical conditions – the roundtable heard. Getting students actively involved in discussions about what is taught at their institution, and how, could yield far more useful information, it was said.

But improving the quality of teaching in higher education is not simply about curriculum content.

Some participants said they felt there was still too much emphasis on research at many universities – and not enough on teaching. “Research-intensive universities describe a group of universities with high status … but no one stands up proudly and says, ‘I’m a teaching-intensive university’,” said one contributor.

While universities enjoy rewards for research – both in terms of finance and status – there is no equivalent for teaching, the roundtable was told. “Isn’t it absolutely the fact that their [researchers’] promotion, their kudos, their status … goes with their research activity? I know lots of academics who get themselves research grants so they can get someone else to do their teaching for them.”

Others disagreed, saying that the majority of top researchers are also good teachers and it was “unhelpful” to suggest otherwise. “There is this myth that the really great researchers tend to only want to do the research and they are not bothered about students,” said one participant. “I’m not quite sure where that has come from because that hasn’t been my experience of higher education … and what could be more rewarding than working with young people?”

But while schools have Ofsted, league tables and other mechanisms with which to benchmark their progress, there is no such equivalent for higher education. The research excellence framework assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, but there is a lack of “good pedagogical models” – that is, teaching methods – for educators to learn from, the roundtable was told.

One participant pointed out that the introduction of modular courses – where students are examined or assessed each semester, rather than at the end of each academic year – has actually made it more difficult to give students the kind of regular feedback and one-to-one support ministers claim they need. The result is that “staff are overworked and students are over assessed”, said one participant. “The obsession with the assessment process means we are teaching surface learning, rather than embedded, deep, lifelong engagement with a subject or discipline area which is about passion for the learning process,” added another.

Value for money

Many believe that the hike in tuition fees – due to rise to up to £9,000 a year from September – will make students far more demanding of higher education providers. But one participant said that providing better value for money is not necessarily about improving facilities or hiring additional teaching staff. Universities could add value by helping students develop their employability skills. “I see a future where we spend time helping our students to become better educators. What we do with our postgraduates, getting them to teach courses … there is no reason we couldn’t get the most able undergraduates doing the same. And research shows that when students educate each other, they actually become better learners.”

Some participants pointed out that this was already common practice in some universities, particularly in medical schools where it is not uncommon for final-year students to get involved with the teaching and assessment of first-year students.

With smartphones, tablets and other forms of technology at their disposal, today’s students want a flexible approach to learning, where they can access resources or catch up on lectures at any time of the day or night. But with so much information now available and easy to share online, many universities are already reporting a decrease in footfall in their libraries, the roundtable heard.

One contributor said that the traditional university campus could be “in the minority” as little as 10 years from now. Another predicted a “Yo! Sushi” style approach to higher education, where students pick up degree modules from different courses and institutions, combining face-to-face learning with online tutorials and lectures. “It won’t matter who the hell has taught it, in which country or where. You will be able to get the stamp from London University or wherever it is,” said a contributor.

But the UK can no longer rely on its reputation as a world leader in education, the roundtable was told. Unless the UK ups it game, developing nations such as India could soon represent serious competition in the global education market. One participant said: “What we have to wake up and worry about are the 44 million graduates each year that India is going to produce. How do we compete? We can’t go on doing the same old thing, the way it has been for the past 300 years when a newer breed of universities that are much more career-focused, technology-enabled, will speak to a wider democracy of students.”

But one contributor made a plea for the continued existence of the university campus. “Yes they [students] turn up with iPods, iPads and other gadgets, but students do keep going back on to campus. We talk about preparing people for the workplace and one of the things we keep harping on about is the importance of being able to engage with other people. I’m not sure you can entirely do that remotely with technology, so you do need to create opportunities for people to meet face-to- face and learn from each other.”

At the table

Sue Littlemore (Chair), Education journalist, The Guardian

Greg Wade, Policy adviser, Universities UK

Prof Mike Mannion, Vice principal and pro-vice-chancellor, Glasgow Caledonian University

Andy Westwood, Chief executive officer, GuildHE

Professor Craig Mahoney, Chief executive, The Higher Education Academy

Professor Carl Lygo, Chief executive officer, BPP Holdings

Professor Stephanie Marshall, Deputy CEO, The Higher Education Academy

John Widdowson Principal, New College, Durham

Ian Pain, Head of account management, Ucas

Dr Janet de Wilde, Head of Stem, The Higher Education Academy

Sue Burkill, Head of education enhancement team, University of Exeter

Beatrice Merrick, Director of services and research, UK Council for International Student Affairs

Matthew Batstone, Director, New College of Humanities

Professor Peter Lutzeier, Principal, Newman College

Professor Don Nutbeam, Vice-chancellor, University of Southampton

Johnny Rich, Publisher, Push/Real World

Source: Guardian Higher Education