Teaching Matters: Show young scholars a way in

December 14, 2007

One outcome of the neoliberal university has been to recast the student as a consumer of higher education, promoting a judgmental culture among undergraduates on all aspects of the student experience.

While students should expect to get value for money, the student-as- consumer model fails to ask students what they have added to the academic life of their universities. Most undergraduates do not get to contribute to the academic culture of higher education because there is little or no provision, at the undergraduate level, for such a contribution to be made.

Angela Brew in Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide (Universities into the 21st Century) calls this lack of undergraduate involvement in the academic culture of higher education a form of "apartheid" between student and teacher. She argues that the key to connecting the student to academic life is the redesigning of the relationship between teaching and research, and that in establishing this connection fundamental questions must be asked not only about what happens in the classroom but the nature and purpose of higher education itself.

Some British universities have been working on ways to connect undergraduates with the academic life of their institutions. Warwick University and Imperial College London have been at the forefront of establishing Undergraduate Research Scholarship Schemes, by which undergraduates work in collaboration with lecturers on research projects, presenting their results at conferences and writing collaborative papers.

Following the success of these schemes, the Higher Education Academy and the Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee have made the establishment of links between research and teaching in the undergraduate curriculum a priority. This process has been further enhanced by a move away from the idea of teaching-only universities, introduced by the White Paper on higher education in 2003, to an acknowledgment by the Government of the need for post-1992 universities to develop a policy of "research- informed teaching".

A framework for supporting these approaches is provided by the work of Ernest Boyer, who was concerned with reinventing the relationship between teaching and learning in higher education in the US in the 1990s. Writing in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate , he points out the imbalance between research and teaching and argues for teaching to be recognised as a fundamental part of academic life.

He argues that the most important obligation facing colleges and universities is to break out of "the tired old teaching versus research debate" and define, in more productive ways, what it means to be an academic.

Boyer centres his approach to teaching and research on the concept of scholarship, providing four different categories by which to reinvent the student experience at research-intensive universities. His categories are: scholarship of discovery, or research; scholarship of integration, via interdisciplinary connections; scholarship of engagement, through the application of knowledge to the wider community; and scholarship of teaching, via encouraging academics to research their own teaching in a scholarly manner.

Boyer's work was further developed by the Boyer Commission, set up in 1999, which advocated an academic bill of rights for undergraduate students, including a commitment for every university to provide opportunities to learn through inquiry rather than the simple transmission of knowledge.

In the UK, the most dramatic progress in linking teaching and research has been achieved by the centres for excellence in teaching and learning set up to promote research and inquiry-based learning. Following the completion of interim evaluations covering the period 2005-07, the extent and importance of the work is now being revealed.

The Centre for Inquiry-based Learning in the Arts and Social Sciences at Sheffield University is providing rich evidence of the value of inquiry- based learning across a wide range of disciplines from the first year of undergraduate study to taught masters level. Part of the work involves designing experimental teaching spaces, or "collaboratories", to encourage engagement between teachers and students.

The Centre for Applied Undergraduate Research Skills at Reading University has established Engage, an interactive research resource for bioscience undergraduates.

LearnHigher, a consortium of 16 universities working on learning development in higher education that is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, includes the Doing Research project at Lincoln University. At Sheffield Hallam University, students involved with Promoting Learner Autonomy take responsibility for their learning and work in partnership with tutors and other students. This involves high levels of trust and risk-taking by all concerned.

The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research at Warwick and Oxford Brookes universities, operating under the slogan "Student As Producer", aims explicitly to develop undergraduates as part of the intellectual culture of departments. Undergraduates have contributed to book collections and produced an online journal featuring articles written by students that have been subject to an academic review process.

These approaches are supported by an increasing body of research that demonstrates student willingness to engage with more research activity in the undergraduate curriculum. A recent survey at Oxford Brookes by Chris Rust and Pete Smith, "Students' expectations of a research-based curriculum", points to student interest in research-based learning across all ages and agendas, and particularly among mature and part-time students.

All this work is central to developing the undergraduate contribution to academic life, but it is important to recall Brew's demand that any changes to teaching and learning must be made with due regard to the nature of higher education itself.

This debate about the future of the university is far from resolved. As Bill Readings argues in his book The University in Ruins , the wider social role of the university as an institution "is up for grabs", and "the changing institutional form of the university is something that intellectuals cannot afford to ignore".

Readings is right that intellectuals need to be concerned about the future of the university, but his focus on academic professionals excludes the potential for the progressive transformations of higher education that can be made from intellectual collaborations between teachers and undergraduate students.

Mike Neary is professor of teaching and learning, and dean of the Centre for Educational Research and Development at Lincoln University.

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