5 Jun 2012

 “Students say they deserve higher quality teaching (The OBSERVER: 22/04/12)”

Quality in Higher Education is in the news again. HEFCE has just announced a new consultation on- Improving Quality Assurance in Higher Education.Inter alia, it suggests:

“The proposals also seek to ensure that the enhancement element of review is strengthened; and that there is continued student engagement in quality assurance and enhancement processes.”

  I very much hope that members of the SHED fraternity will be energised to respond. And the recent announcement by QAA, on its new Quality Code for HE which mentions ESD is a welcome initiative, albeit a belated response compared to that of OFSTED and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service.

I believe that universities should place much more emphasis on the quality of teaching as Liam Burns the NUS President has recently argued. The current approach to quality in higher education emphasises the role of universities in serving economic interests. This restricts how quality is defined, understood and measured. Hence value for money, completion rates, graduate employment and graduate earnings feature strongly. And this means that a degree becomes equivalent to a share certificate whose value is determined by the issuing university. A recent select committee report was highly critical of the Vice Chancellors who gave evidence but could not give “a straightforward answer to the simple question of whether first class honours degrees achieved at different universities indicate the same or different intellectual standards”.

Universities should assess how learning contributes to wider social functions such as active and ethical citizenship and shaping a democratic civilised and more sustainable society. Universities have a significant role in developing ‘sustainability literate’ leaders and hence optimising their contribution to the future of society, the environment and the economy.  Sustainability in this sense does not feature in quality assurance or the accreditation systems for university teachers.  An NUS survey carried out in 2011 indicated that 80% of first year students said sustainability should be an integral part of their university course and that this would help them in gaining employment in the future

Moreover, a highly critical select committee report on quality and students (Students and Universities, 2009) contained the following student quote: “contact time we have with staff is a problem. Lecturers are often informative but there is no one-to-one time. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a sausage factory rather than surrounded by some of the foremost minds in my field “.
 We urgently need to encourage and seek ways of integrating these more fundamental aspects of teaching and learning into university quality assurance procedures and into the professional accreditation of university teachers so that we count things of real value to both students and society more generally.
  Stephen Martin