NPC/98/10/A: Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

by Jeremy Hoad

Learning and teaching: strategy and funding proposals
HEFCE Consultation 98/40
Summary of responses sought and submission from the National Postgraduate Committee (NPC)

50. We invite comments on our strategic priorities and funding proposals to enhance learning and teaching in higher education. In particular, we would like comments on:

a. The proposed strategic purposes for our learning and teaching strategy.

We agree with all of the strategic issues identified and fully support the issues and aims identified in point 8.

Of particular concern is the issue of facilitating the adoption of the principles of lifelong learning (8b). This is important to open up access to higher education to those groups currently under represented and also serve the existing participants better. Postgraduate students are of particular note here, having specific and different identifiable needs from the larger student body. We would encourage the consideration of the limitation of facilities available to postgraduates outside the normal teaching periods, both within term time and vacations. We will make further comments on the issue of widening access and lifelong learning in our response to HEFCE 98/39 Widening participation in higher education: funding proposals.

In responding to global competition (8d) it must be acknowledged that higher education in the UK is functioning within a global arena. Nevertheless UK higher education should seek to maintain its distinct position within this market and not aim to emulate practice in other countries where this might compromise the identity and unique selling points of UK higher education.

The efficient and effective use of resources (8e) is a fundamental tenet of all management practice. This should be adhered to at all times, particularly with the funding reductions within higher education recently and the reduction in the per capita investment in higher education. However, smaller HEIs might be at a disadvantage in achieving these aims when placed in a national context as larger HEIs naturally have economies of scale which place them at an advantage. The intention to "help those with the potential to achieve high quality learning and teaching provision to do so" (10c) goes some way to address this problem implicitly. However it is not stated how such potential is to be judged. It is our contention that all HEIs have such potential. It is the means of support and realisation of this potential that is important.

Postgraduate students are a clear instance of identifiable and distinct needs within HE (10e).

b. The proposal to base our approach to funding on a bidding mechanism rather than the mainstream teaching funding method.

The principle of this proposal is good. However, we believe there is a clear conflict in the procedures suggested. It is recognised (18) that "strong concerns were expressed about our proposal to use the results of the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) process as a basis for a funding formula to reward excellence". Point 24 then acknowledges that "We would expect the outcomes of the TQA process to be a significant part of institutions' evidence of high quality provision, but not necessarily the sole evidence". This appears to suggest that, despite the reservations about using a formula based on the TQA results this will happen by default with institutions basing their bids largely on TQA evidence. We believe that this conflicts with the aims of identifying and encouraging high quality teaching and learning practice by favouring larger institutions who have the resources and personnel to achieve good TQA results. This method would therefore marginalise smaller HEIs in the bidding process. We propose that TQA data is either excluded from bidding submissions or considered separately. HEIs should be required to identify how they are best using the resources they have available to improve teaching and learning and adopt innovative and high quality practices. In awarding funds the size of institutions and the effort they have made to make efficient use of their resources should be considered.

c. The proposal to allocate additional student numbers on the basis of achieved high quality.

This proposal satisfies the aim of supporting high quality teaching and learning with resources but does not use the resources allocated to the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund directly. We therefore support this proposal with the proviso that the methods used to judge quality should be non-disciminatory.

d. The subject strand of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund, particularly on proposals to:

i. Bring together the current programmes, and to commission a further phase of development projects.

This is a sensible rationalisation of the current programmes, although once again we have reservations about the sole reliance on TQA evidence as a determining factor in the allocation of funds.

ii. Reward the successful completion of development projects, either existing TLTP and FDTL projects and future projects, or future projects only.

Both existing and future development projects should be rewarded. Although the criteria for assessing how past programmes "can demonstrate successful achievement, transference and embedding of their project outcomes" is difficult we believe that if such programmes cannot prove their worth then they have had limited success. In order to maintain consistency in the transfer period and to develop the teaching and learning projects that are already in place there should be consideration of both existing and future programmes.

iii. Invest in a programme aimed at provision which needs to improve in quality.

The improvement of quality in all institutions must be a core focus of the Fund. The targeting of funds to improve quality at HEIs where high quality has not yet been achieved is crucial (29). Nevertheless, it is unclear why these funds are limited to the subject-based strand alone. Teaching practice in all subjects is important but equally important is the opportunity for shared good practice which comes from interdisciplinarity. Although we recognise the suggestions at innovation (41) we would propose that a further element of the subject level should be to develop a system which facilitates joint projects across subjects. While there are clear subject-specific requirements and practice in teaching and learning there should also be the opportunity for subjects which are closely related to cooperate. This would reflect the proposal in the recent Research Assessment Exercise consultation (RAE 1/98) to acknowledge interdisciplinarity and collaborative research to a greater extent in future.

We agree that the suggestion (30) to develop networks and partnerships to share 'best practice' is the best way to disseminate information.

iv. Develop a UK-wide programme of new integrated subject centres to support learning and teaching.

The development of integrated subject centres as identified is welcome. We would suggest, however, that these centres should be flexible enough to coordinate between each other to facilitate shared best practice between different subjects. This would accept the importance of interdisciplinary work and collaboration between departments both within the same subject area and from related disciplines. It would also encourage the critical analysis of approaches to teaching and learning within particular subjects. Different subjects have different structural paradigms for teaching and learning and these have often become entrenched over the years. Subjects should be encouraged to look for best practice not only within themselves but from other subjects and seek the application of innovative and successful methods from wherever they come.

e. The proposal to invite bids from institutions for awards to individual academics, to enhance learning and teaching and to recognise excellence in learning and teaching.

There are two issues here. Firstly the proposal for awards to individual academics and secondly the acknowledgement of existing teaching excellence. We support both these proposals.

The opportunity for academics to take "sabbaticals" to focus on and develop high quality teaching and learning is a welcome development. However, the practicalities of such a proposal are difficult as long as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has the limited definition of research that it currently adopts. We believe that the development of teaching and learning in higher education should be given as equally high a priority as research and that the time and effort spent on the development of these areas is recognised by the RAE. Teaching and learning should not be seen as separate and distinct from research but integral to the work of individual academics and HEIs.

The integral and complementary nature of teaching and learning on the one hand and research on the other is no more apparent than in the area of postgraduate study and support. The concept of teaching and learning is too often perceived to be limited to the undergraduate field. Not only in the area of Masters courses which have a taught element to them but also in postgraduate work which is research based is the nature of the learning process and the quality of the teaching provided highlighted.

The proposal for the recognition of existing teaching excellence is warmly applauded. For too long teaching excellence has been neglected and the focus in higher education has been on research alone. It is deplorable that those academics who excel in teaching and might concentrate on this highly rewarding aspect of higher education have been looked down upon as of lesser importance than their colleagues who concentrate upon and/or excel at research. We believe that the Research Assessment Exercise has, to a certain extent, exacerbated this problem by concentrating academic minds on research output at the expense of other departmental / academic functions, notably teaching and learning, despite the functions of the Teaching Quality Assessment exercises. We are heartened that the funding bodies are now seeking to recognise the importance of teaching and learning process and support the proposal for awards of the type "Professor/Fellow of Education: Chemistry".

We believe that it is important that teaching and learning are given a high priority in higher education and that HEIs should be encouraged to develop clear career structures for those academics who excel at or concentrate on teaching as opposed to research. The proposals outlined here should begin this process.

f. The possible areas for innovation and development on which we should focus any future investment.

Accepting that investment, innovation and development in teaching and learning in higher education covers all sectors of activity we suggest that postgraduate activity should be a particular focus for future investment. The idea of teaching and learning in higher education is, as we mention above, concentrated on the undergraduate student body. While this is understandable in terms of both public perception and student numbers we believe that postgraduates have been neglected as a major group within higher education.

The areas where investment and development need to be concentrated for postgraduate students fall into three main categories: postgraduate taught courses, postgraduate research courses and postgraduates who teach.

Postgraduate Taught Courses

There has been a very large expansion in the numbers of taught postgraduate courses available in recent years and a concurrent increase in postgraduate student numbers. The position of such courses demands special attention as they form a specific element within higher education. Increasingly students, employers and the academic community see postgraduate taught courses as a preferred route to employment or academia. What needs particular attention here are the teaching methods used, their applicability to and appropriateness for a postgraduate level course and the acceptance by both staff and students that postgraduate study is distinct from undergraduate work. The nature of postgraduate taught courses and practice that should be adopted is addressed in the National Postgraduate Committee publication "Guidelines for Instructional Postgraduate Courses".

Postgraduate Research Courses

Postgraduate research courses have received even less attention with regards to teaching and learning processes than postgraduate taught courses since they have less clear pedagogic methods involved such as lecture courses, seminars, workshops or tutorials. Postgraduates involved in research have different needs and practices to support and facilitate their learning processes.

The first major area which demands attention is the role of both postgraduate students and academic staff in the supervisory relationship. This has been negotiated often by the adoption of current or past practice and/or the experience of the supervisors in their periods(s) of postgraduate study. Although good practice is being slowly disseminated through, for example, the adoption of codes of practice for supervisors and their students (often with reference to the National Postgraduate Committee "Guidelines on Codes of Practice for Postgraduate Research") attention should be paid to how good practice in this area can be supported and encouraged. The TQEF could play a particularly important role here by encouraging innovation and development which would help HEIs to meet the specific needs of postgraduate researchers. This would benefit students, employers and the academic community generally as postgraduates who are active researchers form the next generation of academic staff.

The second substantial area that should be focussed on is what teaching methods and practice are adopted by HEIs to support postgraduates involved in research. It is no longer the case that a research postgraduate can spend three or more years independently concentrating on their specific and often very narrow area of research. Research Councils, HEIs and employers are requiring postgraduate researchers to develop a broad range of skills within their subject discipline and not only those skills which are appropriate to or necessary for their research project. This is to be welcomed as providing postgraduates with a wide range of transferable skills and broad understanding of their discipline and its context within the higher education community itself and the wider society. Nevertheless, we feel that attention must be paid to the changing nature of the requirements for postgraduate research and their impact on the position of postgraduate research degrees within higher education. Postgraduate researchers' time is more pressured now from activities outside their research, particularly training courses and involvement in teaching, than ever before. We believe that this demands urgent attention to address the best ways that higher education in the UK can continue to produce high quality researchers.

Postgraduates Who Teach

It is no longer the case that very few postgraduates are involved in teaching in higher education and it is seen as a rare and privileged thing to be asked to do. Many departments and institutions rely on postgraduates to maintain their teaching requirements. This includes all levels of teaching from tutorials, seminars, workshops and demonstrating to course design, marking, lecturing and advising students both on academic and personal matters. Sometimes this postgraduate involvement in teaching is formalised through Course or Teaching Assistantships, Scholarships which require an element of teaching or even part-time positions. However, it is often on an ad hoc basis, paid at an hourly rate. We believe that the role of postgraduates who teach within higher education is crucial and demands immediate attention. The National Postgraduate Committee publication "Guidelines for the Employment of Postgraduate Students as Teachers" addresses this area but we believe that much more could and should be done to improve the quality of support for and provision of postgraduates who teach.

The involvement of postgraduates in teaching in higher education is not only an issue of relevance to postgraduates themselves but goes to the heart of teaching and learning in higher education. Postgraduates benefit enormously from the experience of teaching and often find it exhilarating and rewarding. Teaching experience develops communication and analytical skills which might otherwise be neglected whilst pursuing research. Furthermore students often benefit from the direct contact with new and enthusiastic researchers. However, it is equally of benefit to the academic community generally and many departments and HEIs could not function without the assistance of postgraduates.

We believe that higher education is no longer made up of distinct groups. The binary divide between academic staff and students undergraduate or postgraduate is no longer applicable. We believe that where postgraduates are involved in teaching it is the responsibility of the HEI to ensure that they have sufficient resources and training to fulfil their role as members of the teaching body. HEIs also have a responsibility to undergraduate students to ensure that the postgraduates involved in teaching are of the highest quality possible.

Each of these three areas Postgraduate Taught Courses, Postgraduate Research Courses, and Postgraduates Who Teach are in need of further study and encompass the needs of postgraduates, undergraduates and teaching and learning throughout higher education.

g. Our funding proposals, and in particular the purpose and nature of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund.

We are not in a position to comment on the funding proposals in detail but we welcome the commitment of resources to the recognition of and support for innovation and excellence in teaching and learning in higher education.

The purpose of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) is fully supported by the National Postgraduate Committee. We welcome any initiative that aims "to enhance learning and teaching practice, to reward high quality, and to encourage improvement".

Our comments and concerns rest with the nature of the TQEF:

  • We accept the sensible division of the TQEF into three strands: institutional, subject and individual.
  • We agree with the proposal that no element of the TQEF should be directed at an institutional level and that institutions should be rewarded by the allocation of additional student numbers on the basis of achieved high quality.
  • We are concerned that the reliance on TQA evidence as a significant part of institutions' bids to the TQEF would tend to discriminate against smaller institutions. The focus for support from the fund should be towards those institutions that demonstrate the most efficient use of the resources they have in developing innovative and high quality teaching and learning structures and methods.
  • We suggest that the subject strand be expanded to facilitate collaboration not only within but between different subjects.
  • We support the establishment of a network of of new subject centres with the aims identified (33).
  • We fully support the development of the proposals for the individual strand and believe that this could play a significant part in altering the perception of teaching within the higher education community.
  • We are concerned that the proposal (39) that individual bids are judged against "clearly defined criteria and verifiable outcomes" should consider the context of individual HEIs and measure added value as opposed to raw data such as the standard of degrees awarded.