At next week's teaching fellowship awards, Britain's best lecturers will get £50,000 to pursue cherished projects, writes Pat Leon
If Margaret Hodge accepts the invitation, next Tuesday she will shake hands with 20 of Britain's best lecturers. The encounter at the London awards ceremony for the second annual National Teaching Fellowships should dispel any doubts she might have that teaching at universities is changing - and for the better.
The higher profile is born of a realisation that, if as is optimistically hoped, half the under-30s are to pass through the portals of higher learning by 2010, things will have to change. Most of the next generation of students will be mobile-phone carrying, IT-literate people, who are accustomed to coursework and have had to do a fair amount of independent research for AS and A levels.
This is a far cry from the student experience of Hodge and her cohort and of most of the fellowship winners. Their research projects show that the disciplines are adapting to the children of the information and communications technology revolution.
Award-winner Anthony Rosie, a specialist in the social sciences and IT at Sheffield Hallam University, says: "Five years ago, few of my students had any experience of the web, now 80 per cent have."
Rosie is using his prize of £50,000 over three years to experiment with electronic peer monitoring on his undergraduate classes. "Students are much better tutors for each other than we or they realise. The trouble is that lots of them come to university expecting face-to-face tutoring and with 50 or 60 students to look after, it's impossible for us."
Ever larger lectures are a bug-bear of Lesley-Jane Reynolds, a Surrey University microbiologist whose lecturing is, ironically, highly rated by students. "I went almost overnight from teaching classes of 20 to 150. Students are expected to absorb it all. We hand out lecture notes, talk, then mark their exams at the end of the year."
In her second-year course in immunology, Reynolds wants to abolish 30 lectures and replace them with six tutorials of about 20 people each. The students would prepare beforehand by working through course material she will write for the web or CD-Roms. "In the seminars, we can concentrate on difficulties and give students more individual attention," she says. Surrey will examine the results with a view to rethinking the lecture system.
In accountancy, the nature of teaching is neglected, says Ursula Lucas, who teaches at Bristol Business School, based at the University of the West of England. She says the 200,000 people a year who study accountancy all need basic financial courses. "Students come with lots of preconceptions and fears, particularly of maths. We need to overcome them." Lucas wants to develop a diagnostic questionnaire to find out how students learn. "I've done the pilot work, but it's time-consuming. This award gives me a sabbatical - you don't get many opportunities for them in new universities."
Lucas plans to organise an international conference with some of the prize money, but she will also seek sponsorship from accountancy bodies.
The international arena also features in Christopher Rowland's project. He plans to bring together string quartet experts from all over the world for a conference at the Royal Northern College of Music, where he is director of chamber music. "There's never been a conference on string quartets, yet it is one of music's most seminal genres."
Rowland - whose department is Europe's largest - is no stranger to prizes. As leader of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, he won a Grammy and a Grand Prix du Disque in the 1970s and 1980s. But this prize is special, he says.
"Music is being given the same status for teaching and research as core departments in universities while the national curriculum in schools is neglecting it, to the peril of young people's artistic freedom and expression.
"Many of the fellows are scientists. Therefore it is a great symbol for the performing arts that it is included," Rowlands adds.
Claire Davis is one such scientist, and she too has a gripe about the school curriculum. Davis, a steel metallurgist at the University of Birmingham, is disturbed by the lack of awareness about materials science as a university subject among young people.
"Lots of materials science is supported by case studies, and we have built up expertise in writing them. We use them to look at the materials in sports shoes, blood bags, space shuttles and so on."
Case studies need to be geared to all as the depth of students' technical knowledge varies, she says. Her project aims to understand how students learn from case studies. The results will help design technology students at AS level as well as undergraduates.
Most of the award-winners will use their money to hire a research assistant and administrative help. All must set aside £1,000 for travel, says the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which gives the prize money. They use this to meet other fellows three or four times a year under the watchful eye of Carol Baume, director of Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund coordination, based at the Open University.
Baume monitors the projects and the spending for the funding council. She also puts award-holders in touch with people who have done or are doing similar work. The 24 subject centres, which opened last year, are ideal vehicles for such networking.
"The difference with the fellowships is that it is public money but it's given as prizes to individuals," Baume says. If a winner changes job, the money moves with them even if they leave the institution that nominated them. "Monitoring is more about making sure they spend the money on the project and helping them to get the best value out of it."
All winners are expected to write about and publicise their activities over the three years. They must also present the results at an event sponsored by the Institute for Learning and Teaching, which manages the fellowships on Hefce's behalf, and contribute to an ILT book.
Last year, the first award-winners waxed lyrical about how the prize money would "buy time", but with the hefty workload these fellows are taking on, it looks like time might still be at a premium.
Geographer Mick Healey, who won an award last year to investigate the scholarship of teaching, says: "I planned an average of a day a week on the project for two years, but I have probably spent lots more. I have thoroughly enjoyed my first year and am sorry I cannot be at the annual ceremony for this year's winners - but then I shall be in Australia in connection with my project."
THE TOP OF THE CLASS
The panel of 24 judges, plus three ex-officio members of the Institute for Learning and Teaching, received nominations from 86 higher education institutions and shortlisted 43.
Of the 20 winners - 12 men, eight women - seven are from institutions that produced a prizewinner last year.
The 20 lecturers winning Institute for Learning and Teaching National Teaching Fellowship Awards are: Christopher Budd , University of Bath; Claire Davis , Birmingham University; Ruth Soetendorp , Bournemouth University; David Grantham , Coventry University; Susan Armitage , Lancaster University; Ian Hughes, Leeds University; Mick Wallis , Loughborough University; Nick Byrne , London School of Economics; Paul O'Neill , Manchester University; Philip Frame , Middlesex University; Margaret Johnson , Open University; Les Jervis , Plymouth University; Michael McCabe , Portsmouth University; Christopher Rowland , Royal Northern College of Music; Anthony Rosie , Sheffield Hallam University; Caroline Walker-Gleaves , Sunderland University; Lesley-Jane Reynolds , Surrey University; Ben Knights , Teesside University; John Peters , University College Worcester; and Ursula Lucas , University of the West of England.