Research to start on day one of degree course

UCL’s Michael Arthur plans to inject research element into all undergraduate courses

Undergraduates at University College London could be helping academics to conduct research from day one of their degree courses, according to plans unveiled by the institution’s president and provost aimed at boosting the student experience.

Speaking to Times Higher Education to mark the launch of his strategy for UCL, Michael Arthur said that research and teaching had been pulled apart by assessment processes such as the research excellence framework and the Quality Assurance Agency’s institutional reviews.

But getting academics to do a “superb job” for students will involve bringing research and education together, he said.

Professor Arthur joined the institution from the University of Leeds in September 2013. He has previously chaired the steering group for the National Student Survey, and he said that he “majored” on student experience during his interview for the role at UCL.

“It was certainly one of the council’s concerns to ensure that the student side of things was taken forward as positively as the research.”

It was “no secret”, he said, that UCL “has not done that well” in the NSS and it “should do better”.

Under his new strategy, UCL 2034: The Next 20 Years, he said that teaching should move from a “research-led” to a “research-based” pedagogy.

As part of this, Professor Arthur is instigating a review of all the university’s degree programmes in a “refresh” that will insert a research-based element into each one. Students will not have to wait until the third or fourth year of an undergraduate degree to learn about the research activities of the department he or she studies in, he said.

The “exhaustive” series of reviews is likely to take between three and five years, he added.

The change is intended not to create graduates who are researchers but rather “rounded graduates who are of value to society”, he said. “This is about building their confidence, critical independent thinking, problem-solving skills, communication and teamwork.”

Examples of how students could get involved in the research process include arts and humanities departments using students to read from special collections, which some have been doing for years, he said, and his experience of students doing research for his own grant-funded laboratory work. “I do not think there is anything particularly new about it, but giving it a big emphasis is important,” he said.

Some departments at UCL already do well in terms of student satisfaction, he said, citing law, history, English and archaeology.

“[The archaeology department] have all their students out on a field trip within a couple of weeks of being there, and they really make the students feel valued and central to their thinking,” he said.

Other areas, such as engineering and science, need more attention, he said.

Some academics may not “get it to start with”, he added. However, if it is done correctly, it could make UCL “one of the world’s absolute leaders in the relationship between research and education”.

“Most of us became academics because we believed that those things belonged together,” he said.

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