Shine a light on Oxford tutorials so students can get more satisfaction

New humanities head calls for scrutiny of teaching practices ahead of fees rise. Simon Baker reports

November 3, 2011

Credit: Alamy
A class apart: Oxford's teaching system is highly regarded, but Shearer West wants to see if it could be improved

The University of Oxford should "shine a light" on aspects of its teaching system and ask "tough questions" about how it could improve, given the rise in undergraduate fees to £9,000 from next year, its new head of humanities has said.

Shearer West said the university should not rest on its laurels even though its intensive tutorials, a system it has in common with the University of Cambridge, still receive "universally glowing" acclaim in satisfaction surveys and are a "unique selling point". In particular, it was worth "carefully considering" the relationship between tutorials, lectures and seminars, how tutors interact with those they teach and the "quality and speed" of students' feedback.

"It would be ridiculous if I came in saying the tutorial system must go...but what we need to do is look at the whole system of teaching we have at Oxford and decide whether it is giving students everything they require," the art historian said.

"With £9,000 fees coming in, it's our responsibility to examine closely the benefits of the system we have and whether we can improve it. I don't prejudge the answer...but I don't see why we shouldn't shine a light on it and see how it's working."

Professor West said the university would work closely with the students' union to inform such a process, but one area to consider might be the individual relationships between tutors and their tutees, which are often "fabulous and productive" but can also be problematic.

The former director of research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council also called on academics in her field not to be "embarrassed" about demonstrating the impact of their work, given the upcoming research excellence framework.

She said the arts and humanities had the potential to benefit more than science from the inclusion of impact in the REF, provided methods of measurement were "handled intelligently" and academics were not "shy or reticent" about the public engagement side of their work.

"People either don't recognise that what they are doing has impact or are perhaps even slightly embarrassed about it," said Professor West, who was a panel member for the 2008 research assessment exercise.

She also spoke about "exciting plans" to move much of Oxford's central humanities operations to a new "hub" in the city's Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. There are already proposals to base a new cross-disciplinary institute of advanced studies in the humanities on the site as well as the philosophy and theology libraries. Longer term there could be a single large building for the division's faculties.

Asked if this would cause tensions with Oxford's collegiate system, Professor West said: "I don't like 'us and them' mentalities of any kind, and I am hoping to work very productively with the colleges because we share many interests."

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