HEA boss says rethink the relationship with students

Overhauling curriculums and assessment calls for 'engaged partnerships'. Rebecca Attwood writes

February 12, 2009

The head of the Higher Education Academy has called for a "transformation of the student experience" and a "seismic shift" in the way the relationship between students and higher education is viewed.

Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the HEA, said that despite a generally positive picture of the student experience in the UK, the sector must not be deluded "into thinking that everything in the garden ... is rosy".

He said it was "not satisfactory" that the ratings students gave their courses in the National Student Survey varied so widely between subject areas, nor that only half the students surveyed by the National Union of Students thought that the feedback they gave on lectures and courses was acted upon.

Professor Ramsden - who last year was asked to write a report for the Government on the future of the student experience over the next 10-15 years - told The Guardian's Higher Education Summit in London last week that the sector needed to see an "engaged partnership" between students and institutions.

Those young people who responded to the NUS' Student Experience Survey wanted to be involved in shaping their courses, he said.

"There is growing recognition that students have a major role to play in improving teaching and assessment. Universities and colleges are increasingly seeing students as collaborators rather than junior partners in the improvement of quality."

But he warned that ideas of student consumerism, instrumentalism and "value for money" measured by contact hours were in danger of "muddying the waters".

Professor Ramsden argued that graduates needed to be able to handle uncertainty and unpredictability and embrace complexity to cope with the future's demands.

As a result, he said, there must be more interdisciplinary study, with courses that maintain a global perspective and more opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research.

Ways of assessing and recording student achievement must change to provide "richer descriptions" of what students have learnt, and higher education must "extend" and challenge students more, he added.

"To do this - through reforming curriculums and assessment, developing global perspectives in graduates, creating a more professional and adaptable workforce, preparing students better, reforming quality arrangements and so on - we'll require a seismic shift in how we view the relationship between students and higher education," Professor Ramsden said.

"'Engagement' doesn't properly capture the change that is coming and that students are so eager to grasp. It is not something to be taken frivolously.

"It is a heavy responsibility for both the students and the universities. It takes us far from the idea that the student is a customer."

In his speech, Professor Ramsden also pressed the Government to consider removing the "outmoded" divide between the financial support available to part-time and full-time students when it conducts its review of fees.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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