It's the same drive, but just a different operating system 1

December 17, 2004

Teesside's Alan Clements and Imperial's Jeremy Bradley find that despite catering for a dissimilar student body, they have a common dedication

'It's probably a set-up. You'll be eaten alive down South'
I was more than a bit apprehensive when The Times Higher asked whether I'd like to shadow a lecturer from a Russell Group university for a day and write up my experiences. I thought about the request for a good five seconds and agreed. I hate declining new experiences because you never know where they may lead.

My colleagues in the School of Computing at Teesside raised a collective eyebrow when I told them about the invitation. "It's probably a set-up," they gleefully cried. "You'll be eaten alive down South." So I thought I'd better clear things with the vice-chancellor before going ahead. He seemed reasonably supportive but, as I left, I heard him say to his PA, "Karen, dust off Clements' P45 and have it ready. He might not be staying much longer."

I am to spend a day with Jeremy Bradley, a young lecturer; the basis of the swap being an exchange between a post-92 university and one from the Russell Group, and between someone starting their career and someone well established.

I follow Jeremy's directions to Imperial College through a beautiful part of London. Jeremy's note says. "It's the carbuncle at the end of the street." He's right. The computer science department is a chunk of concrete that can best be described as 1960s brutalism. Inside, I notice they have stuck what looks like someone's ageing swimming certificates over the entrance to a lecture theatre. On closer inspection I find that they are written in Swedish and are the Nobel prizes of people who have worked at Imperial. You don't see that every day.

Being in the UK's leading engineering establishment is a little daunting.

How am I going to handle the exchange? I'll have to report that they take good students and let them watch as academics do research, whereas we take local people and give them an education they could not get anywhere else.

When I arrive, Jeremy is in the middle of a tutorial in his room. He is teaching matrix algebra to seven first-year students. It is a bit like stepping into the past, where students got to meet their tutors in groups of fewer than 20. Perhaps I was wrong about teaching at Imperial.

I tell Jeremy that I am surprised by such small tutorials in an age of mass education and large class sizes. He explains that small tutorial groups are used to support key courses such as mathematics. Other tutorials use groups of 120 students or so with about half a dozen lecturers or postgraduates in attendance.

One of those in the tutorial turns out to be a first-year student representative who is going to a meeting of reps. I tag along. The students are remarkably mature in the way they carry out their business. More than once they suggest that students with problems approach lecturers first rather than jumping into more formal procedures. And they are very supportive of the faculty, which tells me a lot about the atmosphere in the department.

Jeremy is clearly a first-class academic and he's also interested in education and teaching - he's not the type who regards students as irritants standing between him and research. I am so impressed that I ask him whether he would like to apply to be an external examiner at Teesside, which would probably make him one of the country's youngest external examiners.

We discuss life at Imperial and I am suitably gobsmacked by the very light loading in terms of student contact hours there. They have an approximately 8:1 student-to-staff ratio unlike our 22:1 ratio. Jeremy has a couple of courses to teach a year, whereas some of my colleagues have up to 20 hours a week contact time. Such a heavy loading makes it very difficult to be creative and to "reflect on the education process".

One of the most surprising aspects of Imperial is the homogeneity of the students. I see no mature students. At Teesside, many of our students are locals who have left school, worked for a few years and then decided to enter higher education to get a better life. Moreover, most of Imperial's students come from relatively privileged backgrounds with less than 15 per cent from working-class homes (according to The Times Good University Guide ).

Jeremy introduces me to Susan Eisenbach who is responsible for teaching.

Susan demonstrates a visual database that has been developed in-house by students and computer support staff. It tells you everything you would ever want to know about students. You can see, at a glance, what assignments each class is doing at any point in the semester. You can look at teaching by class, by lecturer or by course. Imperial's final-year project database is equally impressive. Academics put up project suggestions and are visited by students interested in taking the project. The potential supervisor can indicate the level of the student's interest and faculty can immediately see the status of all projects.

Susan is a passionate advocate of teaching. She makes it clear that an academic coming to Imperial who is interested only in research will not be accepted. She shows me the computing facilities students have access to.

She explains that, unlike many universities, students have access to computers that are better than those they have at home. It is nice being in a place where money doesn't appear to be problem.

I also speak to the senior tutor, Margaret Cunningham, who is responsible for student welfare. If a student misses two tutorial sessions, they have to give an explanation. Although students at Imperial receive as much personal help as students at Teesside, Imperial's students are expected to hit the ground running when they arrive. I don't see evidence of the remedial help that Teesside's students can access; indeed, I am told that students who can't cope with the demanding workload are encouraged to move to another university.

The brightest and the best students are attracted to Imperial and they are carefully filtered to ensure that only those who can succeed make it through to the first year; only 20 per cent of those who apply are accepted. This shows in their minuscule dropout rate. These students are already highly motivated before they get to Imperial. But before coming here, I thought Imperial and its staff just let students develop on their own. They don't. They strive to bring out the best in their students.

Students are given the opportunity to perform research in their first year and to do significant research in the second year. Final-year projects often become the subject of joint papers between student and supervisor. By the time they graduate, Imperial's students are often on a fast track to a PhD and an academic career.

Before I left Teesside, someone suggested I ask Jeremy whether it is fair that both Teesside and Imperial might charge the full £3,000 when top-up fees are introduced. I don't need to ask the question. Both institutions are filled with dedicated people doing the best job they can.

Both aim to bring out the best in their students. Both perform an important role in society. The faculty at both institutions are equally proud of their students: at Teesside we see people start from a low base and blossom as they progress; at Imperial, the best students become world-class scientists and engineers.

The only time I raise an eyebrow is when I try to sell the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers Computer Society's International Computer Design Competition that I run. This is a major competition with a final event in Washington DC and a prize of up to $18,000 (£9,350).

When I ask the project tutor whether a group of Imperial's students can take part, I am told that students have little time for anything other than work directly related to their course. Discouraging students from carrying out independent work that promotes skills related to their course seems rather strange.

What have I got out of the exchange? I have met Jeremy and made a new friend. I have met Susan and seen how a person with vision and enthusiasm can mould the educational philosophy of a department and ensure that the best students are turned into awesome academics. I leave thinking that a post-92 university such as Teesside does a good job, too, and gives remarkably good value for money. My department has been at the cutting edge of computer science education with the development of many new courses in computing and we have two National Teaching fellows. But we can't be complacent. Worsening staff-to-student ratios and increasing bureaucracy could make it very difficult for universities such as Teesside to maintain excellence in the face of traditional universities that are now putting a lot of effort into delivering a first-class education.

Alan Clements is professor in the School of Computing, Teesside University.

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