Elites must teach better, says v-c

Russell Group institutions have neglected students, Manchester's Gilbert admits. Tony Tysome reports.

February 7, 2008

Research-intensive universities have presided over a decline in the quality of undergraduate teaching as they neglect students in the pursuit of research excellence, the president of the University of Manchester said this week.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Alan Gilbert announced a "root-and-branch review" of his own university's teaching quality and issued a warning that Manchester's strategy to join the world's elite universities will be worthless unless staff can be "re-invented" to interact more with students.

Professor Gilbert said Manchester was taking a stand against a general slide in teaching and learning practice in the Russell Group of research-led universities, with the exception of Oxbridge.

"We know what good teaching and learning is, but everything that is happening in Russell Group universities is moving in a different direction," he said.

A report from eight teaching review working groups was due to be considered this week by Manchester's senate. Proposals include increasing the number of contact hours between students and tutors, reducing the size of seminar groups, providing students with learning mentors, improving systems for student feedback, and cutting back on a "smorgasbord" of options within degree programmes to focus on the core curriculum.

"Whether you like it or not, universities are fundamentally about the education of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate ... it is clear that a university becomes non-viable unless it is a satisfactory destination for good students. There is a flaw in the business of a research university unless it is seen to be dedicated as much to the learning outcomes of students as to its research outcomes," he said.

Manchester's teaching review is still in its early stages, but already Professor Gilbert has laid down some "non-negotiable objectives", including limiting seminar group sizes to no more than eight. The object is to increase interaction between students and academics - a simple enough aim, but one that Professor Gilbert admits could require radical changes in the organisation of staff and courses.

"We might have to reinvent the teaching workforce to do it, and we may need to simplify the curriculum enormously," he said.

The lecturers' union, already concerned about the long-term impact of up to 700 job losses at the university, mainly in administrative areas, is nervous about the implications.

University and College Union branch officer David Beale said: "We will watch this development very closely, and we will insist that the university negotiates any staff implications."

But Professor Gilbert said staff need not fear further job cuts. After introducing a voluntary severance programme and selling some of its buildings, the university is set to clear a £30 million deficit by April, he said. Since 2004, the university's income has grown by nearly 24 per cent to more than £637 million.

"We have no more medicine to oblige people to take, and it looks like we are ahead of our financial target," he said.

Nevertheless, recent revelations over the high cost of prestige-building appointments at Manchester have caused resentment among staff who are now feeling the knock-on effects of losing so much administrative support.

Dr Beale said: "The key point about these iconic appointments is that they promote a strong sense of injustice among staff at the university because of the phenomenally high rates of pay."

The university insists that reports that an £80,000 a year annual salary for author Martin Amis equates to £3,000 an hour are not accurate, since they do not take account of time spent writing and conducting research.

Deputy president Nancy Rothwell admits the decision to make such appointments was contentious, but argues that the value of appointing figures such as Mr Amis and Nobel prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz far outweighs the cost.

"Even sceptics would have to admit that they have made a difference to the quality of academics and students we are attracting," she said.

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