Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 24

Submission from the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, the Open University

Submission to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in connection with its inquiry on "Students and Universities"

  The Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) conducts research on higher education policy and on the broad relationships between higher education and society, both in the UK and internationally. This submission draws on this research and, in particular, on the following four recent projects:

    — What is learned at university? The social and organisational mediation of university learning (Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council).— The flexible graduate in the knowledge society (Funded by the European Commission and the Higher Education Funding Council for England).

    — An evaluation of lifelong learning networks (Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England).

    — A study of student engagement (Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England).

  Our submission follows the four headings used by the Committee in its call for evidence. In it we note

    — the diversity of today's students, the contexts for their learning, and the outcomes of their studies;

    — the unfortunate tendency for this diversity to be viewed only in terms of a reputational hierarchy of institutions;

    — the frequent gap between policy intentions and the values and attitudes of those who have to carry them out;

    — the importance of recognising learner perspectives which may differ in important respects from those of policy makers and academic staff;

    — that there is evidence to suggest that teaching in UK universities is well-regarded by students but that student achievements may not be as great as in some other European countries;

    — the range and diversity of learning outcomes are hardly captured by the degree classification.


  1.  Regarding the implementation and success of widening participation initiatives, the CHERI interim evaluation[71] of Lifelong Learning Networks[72] acknowledged the efforts that many institutions are making in their practices and processes for supporting the admission of vocational learners into higher education. However, while these "system" changes may help to make a difference for vocational learners, changing the hearts, minds and behaviours of individual academics and admissions tutors are much greater challenges. Although targeted funds may be useful levers, there are questions around what happens when such short-term funding ceases—do institutions "revert to type"?


  2.  In a CHERI review of literature on excellence in teaching and learning,[73] we noted that the learner perspective is given relatively little attention in discussions about excellence (and indeed by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee in this inquiry). We also noted that teaching and student learning are distinct phenomena and this is not often acknowledged in policy documents. In the TLRP SOMUL project,[74] it was evident that students placed greatest emphasis on learning outcomes related to personal development and the acquisition of social capital rather than subject-based knowledge as provided by their teachers.

3.  More directly on the subject of the relationship between teaching and research, there may be a growing tension between the ways knowledge is organised for the purposes of teaching (with increasing emphasis on employment-driven multidisciplinary courses) and for the purposes of research (with increasing "mode 2" trans-disciplinary user-engaged research). The primacy of individual academic disciplines as the basis for the organisation of academic staff for both teaching and research purposes may be challenged as a consequence. We note that some universities now have separate structures for the organisation of their teaching and of their research.

  4.  On the quality of teaching provision in UK higher education, we can note the results of international comparisons (including the views of mobile "Erasmus" students who are able to compare the UK with other European higher education systems from first-hand experience) which suggest that the quality of teaching appears to be relatively high within UK universities whilst the level of demands made on learners and the achievements of those learners may be relatively low.[75]

  5.  The TLRP SOMUL project already referred to has noted both commonalities and diversities in the learning outcomes of students from different types of higher education institution. Differences between institutions do not map simply onto reputational hierarchies of institutions but reflect a variety of social and organisational mediating factors to be found in the contexts of learning for today's students.


  6.  Our own research into the student experience (in particular the TLRP SOMUL project referred to above) suggests a multiplicity and diversity of learning outcomes that can hardly be captured by a single measure, such as the degree classification. Work on student profiles, transcripts and similar developments undoubtedly capture more adequately the full range of learning outcomes achieved by today's students. Whether these are fully understood and utilised outside of higher education is another matter. Degree classifications in combination with institutional prestige continue to be used as a probably rather inaccurate surrogate for what has been learned in university. As we have noted elsewhere, "where" one has studied tends to count for more than "what" has been learned in the UK.[76]


  7.  Our current study on student engagement for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (reporting shortly) took a rather narrow definition of student engagement in that it focused on

    …institutional and student union processes and practices, such as those relating to student representation and student feedback, which seek to inform and enhance the collective student learning experience, as distinct from specific teaching, learning and assessment activities that are designed to enhance an individual student's engagement with their own learning.

  8.  Nonetheless student representation and student feedback processes are important aspects which aim to involve students in providing feedback about the courses they have studied; in contributing to developments and improvements in learning and teaching; and in participating in institutional decision-making processes. The student engagement study has found that these processes are widespread, although practices vary both within and between institutions. Within some institutions there is such variety of practice that we would question the existence of adequate systems for monitoring the effectiveness of these processes. We would also question the extent to which the roles, responsibilities and relationships between the main actors involved are widely known and understood among staff and students. We would also suggest that questions of purpose need to be addressed to enable a broader enhancement agenda for the role of students in these processes.

  9.  However, there is also the more general point about how the experiences of students differ both between and within higher education institutions (see for example, Little and Greenwood, 2008[77]). The TLRP SOMUL project and other research has found a range of forms of engagement of students with their higher education. These vary according to the type of institution attended but also according to factors such as the age and circumstances of the individual student (eg undertaking paid work, domestic responsibilities, living at home versus living "in hall" or other university accommodation), subject of study and how study programmes are organised.

  10.  As already indicated, there is some evidence to suggest that the educational experience of higher education students in the UK is in some respects somewhat less than "world class" when compared with its counterparts elsewhere in Europe. With the Bologna process of harmonisation between different higher education systems, differences may become increasingly visible. While this may shatter some myths and any complacency about the superiority of UK higher education, it should also provide plenty of opportunities to learn from the contrasting experiences of others. Thus, we recommend to Government and HEFCE that further attention be given to the growing amount of research evidence on the differences (and similarities) between the higher education experiences provided by different national systems.

December 2008

71   CHERI (2008), Evaluation of Lifelong Learning Networks. Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England Back

72   Lifelong Learning Networks are groups of higher education institutions and further education colleges covering a city, area or region in England. These networks have been established through funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Their policy objective is to improve the coherence, clarity and certainty of progression opportunities for vocational learners into and through higher education. Back

73   Little, B, Locke, W, Parker, J and Richardson, J (forthcoming), Excellence in Teaching and Learning: a review of the literature, York: Higher Education Academy. Back

74   The Social and Organisational Mediation of University Learning (SOMUL) is a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Teaching and Learning Research Programme. Back

75   CHERI has recently completed a report for HEFCE on the "Comparative Student Experience" drawing on recent European research. Back

76   The relative importance of institution attended versus subject studied is explored in a series of reports on the European "Reflex" prepared by CHERI and recently published by HEFCE. Back

77   Little, B and Greenwood, M (2008), Report to Foundation Degree Forward on the impact of foundation degrees on students and the workplace. London: CHERI and Learning and Skills Network. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 2 August 2009