Teaching quality under 'grave threat'

Manchester v-c blames widening access and long-term underfunding. Rebecca Attwood reports

May 15, 2008

Mass higher education and the long-term underfunding of universities are putting the quality of undergraduate education "in serious jeopardy", the University of Manchester vice-chancellor has warned.

In a draft report on the future of undergraduate education at the university, leaked to Times Higher Education, Alan Gilbert says academics have been "noble" in their fight to maintain standards in the face of diminished resourcing. But, he writes, pressures on staff nationally "have mounted ... to the point where the quality of the educational process is under grave threat".

Seven committee reports also seen by Times Higher Education outline the university's plans to tackle declining contact hours and a proposal to lower its entry requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in an effort to increase the proportion of state-school students.

In the interim report of Manchester's Undergraduate Education Review Committee, Professor Gilbert says that students and parents across the country are "telling universities that important elements of the undergraduate experience are leaving them disillusioned" and that Manchester "must not delude itself into assuming that these are other people's problems".

He says the problems "are rooted in the rise of 'mass' higher education nationally and internationally, and in a long history of policy and funding compromises that have placed universities under inexorable pressures to do more for less".

He comments that there is "something noble about the way the academic profession has fought to maintain academic standards over many years, tolerating increasing workloads and pressures ... But the truth is that this has been a gallant rearguard action. In the end gravely diminished per capita resourcing must tell on educational quality."

In the latest staff newsletter, the vice-chancellor promises to "revolutionise" undergraduate education, an agenda to be taken on by Colin Stirling, the university's new vice-president (teaching and learning).

He urges staff to read an article in Manchester's Student Direct newspaper, in which student journalists used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal that social science students at Manchester have half as much contact time as they did 20 years ago.

The final draft report of the committee examining "personalised" learning suggests that short-term strategies for providing more small-group teaching could include reducing the number of units on offer "while maintaining an appropriate degree of student choice", increasing the number of teaching fellows or increasing the number of teaching hours supplied by graduate teaching assistants.

"Schools should ensure that all undergraduate students, but especially first-year students, are taught by leading researchers ... this need not involve researchers teaching whole units, but could be in the form of 'guest lectures', panel discussions or other mechanisms," says the report.

Meanwhile, the group examining recruitment and standards says "the gap is widening" between Manchester and other universities in England when it comes to the diversity and background of students.

The group's report says Manchester does not meet two of three widening participation benchmarks set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. In 2005-06, 77.7 per cent of its undergraduates were from state schools, compared with 86.9 per cent nationally.

The university plans to move towards a range of entry grades, for example, requirements of AAB-ABB at A level.

"The current system is weighted almost entirely on raw academic factors (predicted grades) ... This must shift to a system where every application is supplemented ... with additional quantitative contextual information," says the report.

But the committee recognises that the university's reputation could be "adversely affected by the perception that admissions standards are lower" and notes that changes could affect its performance in newspaper league tables, many of which use high entry tariffs as an indicator of excellence.

The committee examining promotion reports that in a 2006 staff survey 68 per cent agreed that the university should give equal reward and recognition to research and to teaching and learning, but only 12 per cent thought it did. Teaching awards are viewed as "patronising", "divisive" and an "attempt to make up for the fact that teaching does not really count for promotion".

Professor Gilbert's draft report recommends setting up a group to develop clear promotion criteria for teaching.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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