Songs of experience showcased

Universities are making prize-worthy efforts to give students what they want and need, but they can’t control for all factors

March 6, 2014

The cream of British creative talent was in Hollywood for the Oscars on Sunday – if not standing on the red carpet, then dressing the people who were.

Leading the line was Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave (best film), who 20 years ago graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London, and moved to New York to study for a master’s at the Tisch School of the Arts.

Tisch is an Oscar-producing machine – it had nine alumni among this year’s nominees –but McQueen dropped out, finding the teaching rigid and uninspiring (he is said to have complained that “they wouldn’t let you throw the camera up in the air”).

His experience was of a different time and place, but it still offers a way into some of the issues that dominate higher education today.

Shifts in technology, funding ­models and the global economy are undeniably changing how universities think about, interact with and recruit students

One is whether university teaching provides the experience that students want and need, a question that was addressed in speeches by two government ministers last week.

Stressing the need to push frontiers, Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister, told an audience at the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Higher and Further Education in London that there was “an enormous amount of inertia” in the institutional mindset. He urged universities to embrace “unrestrained exuberance for innovation”.

The impact agenda may have focused on research, he said, but “that impact should also – almost primarily – be seen in the effect you have on students”.

“The formation of the minds of succeeding generations is the foundation stone for everything we do,” he added. “Nothing could be more important than that.”

Meanwhile, in Australia, David Willetts, the universities minister, was hailing what he identified as the “bold vice-chancellors” who “are already changing the incentives to focus on good teaching within their institutions”.

We face one of the “biggest culture changes in a generation”, he said, “with institutions thinking harder than ever about what students want and the experience they offer them”.

Whether or not this chimes with your experience, shifts in technology, funding models and the global economy (to name three factors) are undeniably changing the way universities think about, interact with and recruit students. Rigidity is now very passé.

But these developments continue to throw up threats and challenges to the student experience: this week we report on the risk to the unit of resource – long seen as untouchable – as a result of funding uncertainties, Willetts’ thoughts on the threat to quality posed by the expansion of student places, and UCL’s efforts to involve undergraduates more in research.

Also rearing its head was the treatment of international students, following the news that net migration rose last year despite the ham-fisted visa clampdown, while the difficulties faced by postgraduates have begun to be tackled at a local level, with Cranfield University unveiling a private finance scheme in lieu of national funding.

All this means that were McQueen a student today, he would have plenty to contend with.

But he might also have a university that was paying closer attention to what its students need.

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