What price excellence?

Geoffrey Crossick on the dialogue, evidence and strategy essential to preserving a world-class student experience

February 19, 2009

The distinctive quality of the student learning experience in this country will be under threat if we don't manage the sustainability of learning and teaching in a more strategic way.

UK universities have a well-deserved reputation for offering a world-class student experience and for the quality of their graduates, whose capacity for imagination, problem-solving and flexibility is rooted in the character and quality of their educational experience.

It is what attracts so many international students to our universities and so many employers to our graduates. The diversity of missions and the autonomy of institutions are key reasons for our success, but also a challenge in the absence of a national measure of quality equivalent to the research assessment exercise.

But can this success be maintained? There has been a lively debate about how universities are meeting student needs in a mass system of higher education, fuelled by reports such as those by the Higher Education Policy Institute on contact hours and by the National Union of Students on assessment. As the issues are complex, the debate has at times generated more heat than light.

We need credible evidence to inform balanced conclusions. For example, are academic staff overburdened, or are they just choosing to spend more time on some aspects of their roles than on others? Is university investment in teaching space too low, or are we not using it efficiently? We all know that unused lecture theatres are easier to find at either end of the week.

Over the past 18 months, I've chaired a small group looking to assemble this evidence and reach conclusions that will inform future policy. Our report cannot answer all these questions, but it starts to do so in a more systematic way than has been done in the past.

This Government has improved the funding of teaching, but a significant legacy remains from the previous period of unfunded expansion. And new funding has been accompanied by new demands on institutions, from employability and placements to widening participation and retention, from international competition to business engagement. A period of great financial uncertainty, coupled with the sector's slender surpluses, cannot support the investment that students enjoy at our leading global competitors.

In our report, we identify three areas where the student learning experience is under particular pressure: students' access to, and feedback from, academic staff who are recognised in their fields; the fitness for purpose of the material infrastructure for learning and teaching; and the services needed to support a larger, more diverse student population.

Institutions have developed coping strategies to maintain the learning experience in these areas. Some of these are valuable advances, such as new learning technologies, streamlining of modular structures and centrally managed support services. But some other ways of coping are not sustainable.

Teaching and research are positively connected, but we must acknowledge that institutional policies may at times allow research priorities to prevail, to the perceived detriment of students. Some practices are unhelpful: recording scholarship for teaching as if it were research under the Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac) return understates the true cost of teaching.

There is work for institutional leaders to do. While institutions are making deficits on research, or maintaining uneconomic modular structures, or timetabling their teaching into only part of the week, funders may argue that they could better support their teaching simply by different internal resource management. Unless we address this, it will be easier for funders to blame management rather than the unit of resource for any problems identified.

Where does all this leave us? There are serious sustainability problems. The solutions require a joint commitment through government decisions on the resources for universities alongside the strategies adopted by institutions.

Both are needed. Learning and teaching is a core function of higher education, but we have struggled to be explicit about the real cost of a world-class student experience. We need an open debate about the choices for both the sector and the Government if we are to maintain our reputation and market position against global competition.

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