Split-delivery 'sandwich' courses may offer best intellectual nourishment

August 5, 2010

Universities could split the delivery of undergraduate degrees, with some students starting off at teaching-led institutions and finishing at research-intensive universities.

The proposal has been put forward by Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, who said it was right for research-intensive institutions such as his to argue that their students gained from being taught by top researchers.

But in an interview with Times Higher Education, he said that if research-intensive universities were "completely honest", this was primarily an argument for them teaching undergraduates during the latter part of degrees, rather than in their early stages.

In recent years, students in some research-intensive universities have accused their institutions of prioritising research over teaching, resulting in too few contact hours and teaching being conducted by junior staff rather than top researchers.

Professor Gaskell said his idea could improve the quality of undergraduate education.

The ideal scenario would be a "sandwich" course with a difference. Students would begin their studies with a short stint being taught by researchers at the top of their field. This would get them "really excited about what they are doing" and "fired up about the subject", Professor Gaskell said.

Next, they would move into a phase focused on acquiring basic skills and knowledge - perhaps at a teaching-focused institution.

"This stage is best taught by the people who are best equipped, best qualified and the most skilled as teachers - and they may not be top researchers," Professor Gaskell explained.

The final stage would "necessarily" take place in a research-intensive university, he said. "At this point, the researchers would come back in and say: 'Right, you understand what we are doing now. This is the cutting edge of the subject.'"

In the US, it was standard practice for junior colleges to teach one part of the undergraduate curriculum, he said.

The model could also be a way to widen participation. At the moment, some very academically able students choose not to study at research-intensive universities because they feel more comfortable at their local institutions. Under Professor Gaskell's scheme, these students could decide to move to a research-intensive university later in their degrees.

But two conditions must be met for the idea to work, he added.

"First, the university that is focusing on teaching should be satisfied with that role. Second, the research-intensives should be fully respectful of the teaching institutions. Neither requirement is met at present, I'm afraid," he concluded.


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