Our overloaded system needs radical revision to cater for the masses

Academics have heroically filled the gap as student funding falls and numbers rise, but it's now time to rethink teaching, says Alan Gilbert

February 28, 2008

The pages of Times Higher Education have been telling a troubling story of late about the quality of student learning in UK universities. Contributors have noted that wider participation, while welcome in itself, means not just that universities must manage very large numbers of students but that there is a broader spectrum of student ability and motivation. System wide, "the overall quality of admissions" has been "inevitably diluted" in the process.

There has also been widespread recognition that personal learning and teaching interactions between students and teachers are becoming more and more strained by the dramatic growth in student numbers - the so-called massification of higher education. An arresting symptom of the resulting pedagogic stress was epitomised by the academic who told readers last year that in the UK's mass higher education system teachers could no longer be expected to know their students by name.

Such trends are antithetical to the personal dimension of learning that is absolutely fundamental if we want to produce world-class graduates. The cogent evidence offered by one study after another of the ways students learn allows only one conclusion: high-quality learning outcomes are rooted more than anything else in rich personal interactions between teachers and learners. Student surveys here in the UK are telling us the same thing.

Every learner needs opportunities for frequent personal engagement both with other learners and with a teacher, mentor or adviser. Conversely, over-reliance on summative assessment impoverishes student learning, as does a decline of purposeful formative assessment accompanied by timely feedback that is detailed, constructive and personal.

The fundamentals of good student learning are commonly accepted and rarely contested. Pedagogic ignorance is not the problem. Nor is the problem a lack of dedicated scholarly teachers in our universities. Indeed, governments and policymakers have been able to ignore mounting pressures on higher learning chiefly because academic staff in UK universities have responded heroically to the manifold difficulties of preserving the quality of student learning in a mass higher education system.

The problem is that without either better per-capita funding or some radical new solution to the challenge of re-personalising higher learning, UK higher education may not be able to continue producing the kinds of educated citizens and knowledge professionals the country needs.

Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing recognised this danger clearly ten years ago. Calling for the continued expansion of higher education to ensure that the UK remains globally competitive, his report also recognised frankly that the quality of student learning was under immense pressure in a mass higher education system. He reported "a unit cost reduction of more than 40 per cent over the past 20 years".

The top-up fees Dearing recommended have ameliorated but not nearly solved the problems arising from long years of declining per-capita funding. Neither have the marginal surpluses derived from international student enrolments made up the difference.

Dearing rightly placed great store on the possibility of "radical change" in attitudes and approaches to undergraduate education in the UK. Teaching in traditional ways with diminishing resources was simply not, he realised, a viable long-term strategy. Yet while the massification has continued apace over the past decade, there is, sadly, little evidence of the radical changes Dearing called for.

The largest universities, such as Manchester, may face the greatest challenges in trying to tackle the contemporary problems facing undergraduate education, but all universities will in the end have to confront certain fundamental questions.

Can we continue to afford large "smorgasbord" curriculums that offer students abundant choices at an enormous cost in terms of teaching workloads? Might not we and, more importantly, the students themselves be better off if we pursued the more radical strategy of rebuilding curriculums, not incrementally, but around a deep understanding of the multifaceted purposes of undergraduate learning?

How best can we go about re-personalising the student learning experience in the face of burgeoning student-to-staff ratios and mounting resource pressures? How creatively can we learn from students born in the age of the internet? For such students are as much (and sometimes much more) at home online as they are in a mass lecture or bloated tutorial.

At a more pragmatic level, if we want to participate in discussions about top-up fees or alternative future funding arrangements we would be wise first to clarify our thinking about the learning environments and outcomes to which we would put enhanced educational resources. The debate needs to focus on quality.

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