Chief needler at the sharp end of learning

October 22, 2004

Academics and universities should resist the temptation to treat fee-paying students as customers. They should, instead, let them buy into "learning partnerships", Paul Ramsden, the new head of the Higher Education Academy, has told The Times Higher .

It is a provocative view given that students are going to be paying - albeit after graduation - up to £3,000 a year for courses at English universities from 2006.

Like any paying customer, students will expect to get what they pay for, which in this case will be good-quality higher education. Legal experts are already warning that universities ignoring this contractual relationship could find themselves in court - a point not lost on Professor Ramsden.

"If we just see students as customers, that's not very good for learning, teaching and know-ledge. I prefer to see them as involved in a learning partnership. When it works well it feels like teamwork. Having said that, it should not mean that we don't provide outstanding services."

Sparking debate is, at least in part, the name of the game for this seemingly quiet and unassuming man.

Sitting in a drab office in a science park in York, Professor Ramsden could be forgiven for wondering why he left the sunshine of Australia, where he was for five years pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at Sydney University.

But as head of the academy, which was launched this week, Professor Ramsden is in his element.

He is an expert in this field. His bestselling book Learning to Teach in Higher Education is internationally renowned and widely regarded as the classic text on university learning and teaching. His research work has been applied to improving university teaching worldwide.

At Sydney, Professor Ramsden made major changes to better the lot of students, from improving their finances and support to increasing the amount of counselling and computer access. As a result, he helped attract more top students back to the university. "The message got back to prospective students that the University of Sydney experience was a good one," he said.

Professor Ramsden insisted that the academy would not take a one-size-fits-all approach to helping universities enhance their students' learning experience.

"We want to work with universities and institutions to deliver the things they want to deliver. We are not introducing a blueprint for each institution," he said.

It is still early days for the academy and its head. Its strategy has yet to be finalised and not all the board members have been appointed. But Professor Ramsden has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve.

"We want to be the place that the higher education community comes to when it wants to know how best to enhance the student experience," he explained.

As such, the academy will work on teaching lecturers to teach, eventually accrediting teacher-training programmes for new staff.

"There's a lot of nonsense talked about the quality of teaching in universities. The standard could be higher but I'm not one of those who believes there is a major hole in terms of teaching," Professor Ramsden said.

In an ideal world, academic staff would jump at the chance of training and a qualification. But, if they do not, they will not be compelled to do so.

Professor Ramsden also wants the academy to provide an accessible source of evidence of good research and is appointing a research and evaluation director to this end.

The academy may offer PhD scholarships in areas of research that relate to teaching and improving the student experience.

And there is a final dimension to the work of the academy designed specifically to needle and provoke when necessary and where appropriate.

Far from being an organisation concerned solely with the mechanics and technicalities of teaching and learning, Professor Ramsden said the academy would carve out a high-profile political role.

"Debate about key policy issues is one of the things I want to do," he said. "We want to question policy issues and set the agenda as well. I see our role as providing strategic advice to Government and agencies."

He is already talking about hosting a debate on the validity of the research assessment exercise.

Time will tell whether, under Professor Ramsden's leadership, the academy can make itself heard above the clamour of higher education voices already on the national stage.

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk


I GRADUATED FROM
Lancaster University

MY FIRST JOB WAS
working for my father

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS
keeping fit in a cold climate

WHAT I HATE MOST
are two-star hotels

IN TEN YEARS' TIME
I will be snorkelling in the Bahamas.

A BIG RESOURCE POOL

The Higher Education Academy aims to be a one-stop-shop for advice and research on learning and teaching issues. It will offer:

* Access to a much larger pool of resources on curriculum, pedagogic and personal development than before

* Access to specialist research to back up work

* Discipline-specific support for learning and teaching through the subject centres

* Accredited training programmes in learning and teaching in higher education

* Help with finding contacts in other institutions to share information and ideas, finding funders and projects.

Members only: 

* Kudos of having registered practitioner status complete with improved career prospects as more and more institutions use membership of the Academy as a criterion for promotion

* Networking opportunities

* Magazine on learning and teaching three times a year

* Discounted place at the annual conference and discounts on books and publications.

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