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

Memorandum 38

Submission from the University of Plymouth


1.0  Summary

    — It is important to ensure that admissions policies and procedures take account of the wide range of students' educational experiences and approaches to learning in order to provide wider and more equitable access to HE for those with the ability to benefit. — Long-term funding is a pre-requisite of ensuring the continued success of teaching innovation and to ensure that teaching is informed by research in the discipline and into pedagogy;— The quality of teaching provision can be best enhanced by strengthening the National Professional Standards and the role of training in teaching methods for new lecturers;— Continued support for the HEA subject centres, as well as schemes such as the NTFS and the CETLs, is essential to provide opportunities for staff to enhance and develop their career on the basis of teaching.

    — When considering degree classification we need to consider a way of valuing the full range of students' achievements and experience alongside the needs of interpretation of achievement and skills by the employer.

    — Encourage student engagement in the formulation of HE policy and champion the development of a structure to support this mechanism.

    — Non-completion is a complex and many-faceted phenomenon comprising students who take full advantage of the flexibility a modular scheme offers to e.g interrupt a full-time programme to take up employment continuing in a part-time mode; move from module gatherers to part-time mode alongside those who fail to progress.

2.0  Introduction

  The University of Plymouth has had a long and successful record in teaching and learning innovation, as well as areas of research excellence. We have been successful in the award of 11 National Teaching Fellowships and four Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs), plus a share in a fifth, the most of any UK institution. The university was also selected as the host institution for the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES) and as of 2009, following a robust national selection process, will be the Royal Statistical Society's new location for its Centre for Statistical Education. The national Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE), currently chaired by John Hilsdon, University of Plymouth, arose from a Plymouth initiative. We lead the sector in this and many other areas and therefore can provide informed feedback to the DIUS Committee inquiry into students and universities.

3.0  Admissions

The effectiveness of the process for admission to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), including A-levels, Advanced Diplomas, apprenticeships and university entrance tests.

3.1  Students are entering HE with a much wider range of educational experiences and approaches to learning than in previous decades . It is important to ensure that admissions policies and procedures take account of this in order to provide wider and more equitable access to HE for those with the ability to benefit. A preferred path is one where HEIs have the means to properly address transition to HE (eg through foundation years) with targeted skills development for a broader-based intake.

3.2  We would prefer to process applications post results as the process of admissions has become more of an administrative and logistical process—while there is a greater need to be more applicant focused to ensure we are selecting the right students.

The UK's ability to meet government targets for Higher Education participation and the relevance of these targets

  3.3  It can be difficult to strike a balance between the appropriate selectivity for degree level work and continuing to develop different routes to BA Hons from Foundation Degrees etc. There are debates and relationships to be built with industry, commerce and the community to develop distinctive but diverse opportunities. There appears to be a disconnection between National Skills shortages and the Government targets for HE participation. The targets need to take a closer look at demands in industry in vocational areas—for example, the Government Skills Shortage Occupations List (June 2008).

The implementation and success of widening participation initiatives such as Compact agreements, and the impact of the current funding regime on these objectives

3.4  From our experience the activities are widely appreciated by schools—but initiatives need to have solid, longer-term objectives encouraging a sustained approach to building relationships with key institutions.

The role of the Government in developing and promoting fair access and admissions policies for the UK Higher Education sector

3.5  There needs to be consistency in making sure that those with a proven track record in this field are rewarded with the funding to do more in this area. There are reservations about the complexities of the new Diplomas and a perceived reluctance to differentiate between their appropriateness for different disciplines.

4.0  The balance between teaching and research

Levels of funding for, and the balance between, teaching and research in UK HEIs, and the adequacy of financial support for the development of innovative teaching methods and teaching/research integration

4.1  There have been a number of recent schemes which have supported teaching and learning innovation, and integration of teaching and research (CETLs, TLRP, TQEF etc.); however, these have generally been based around fixed-term project funding. For institutions such as ours, this creates a number of difficulties relating to the inconsistency between funding for teaching and for research. It appears that funding for teaching and learning innovation and success is not available on the basis of previous successes in the same way that research-intensive universities are rewarded through the RAE/REF. Despite our many successes in teaching and learning innovation, there is a lack of on-going support for future developments.

4.2  To give an example, the impact of the CETL initiative, in our own institution has been substantial. The award of 4+ CETLs has meant that students have been introduced to an extraordinarily wide range of learning experiences, including the innovative use of mobile learning technologies; introduction to new environments via our immersive vision theatre, and sustainability-related placement opportunities. Further, we have be at the forefront of leading national dissemination events, sharing our developments with the sector at large and promoting the enhancement agenda. Whilst we are making strenuous efforts to ensure that these developments are continued and embedded into the curriculum, intermittent project funding remains the norm for teaching and learning developments. The tradition of providing project-based funding at the expense of long-term evaluation and embedding has led to the situation where intellectual property in the form of learning developments is not fully captured and exploited.

The quality of teaching provision and learning facilities in UK and the extent to which they vary between HEIs

  4.3  It is extremely difficult to gauge the extent of variation in teaching quality in the UK. The best guarantee of equitability is the QAA audit, but even this sheds little light on the issue. The NSS provides some insight into the consistency of the student experience, though again it shouldn't be treated as definitive. If parity is seen as important, there is a need to investigate more carefully the ways of measuring or benchmarking current practice focusing on output/outcome measures rather than input measures.

4.4  Provision of learning facilities does not correlate directly with the assessment of the student learning experience. It is clear that institutions with higher levels of resources will score more highly on this measure. However there is no research which provides clear evidence that teaching quality is higher in such institutions.

The suitability of methods of assessing excellence in teaching and research and the impact of research assessment on these activities

  4.5  As one of the leading modern post-1992 universities, we make strenuous efforts to ensure that our teaching and our research are aligned and viewed as complementary rather than competing agendas. Efforts to embed research-informed teaching have been enhanced by the recent distribution of TQEF funding focused specifically on this area, though this is now coming to an end. It is crucial that all HE teaching is informed by research; hence it follows that all institutions should support research. However the way in which research funds are distributed via the RAE threatens research developments in many universities, and limits the opportunity for new areas of research expertise to be opened up beyond the traditional research-intensive institutions. Undoubtedly, to some degree, the RAE has had a negative impact on teaching, as staff are encouraged to produce output which can be submitted into the RAE rather than focusing on teaching enhancement, writing textbooks and developing learning materials for the web, mobile devices etc. The difficulty of including pedagogic research in the units of assessment has also made this mode of research problematic and indeed it is explicitly discouraged by some panels.

4.6  There are obviously problems with assessing teaching excellence in the same way that there are problems and controversies around the way in which research excellence is assessed. However, this does not mean that assessment of teaching quality should not be attempted; simply that care should be taken to find a way of assessing teaching excellence which is measured via outputs, including the student experience. Excellence in teaching is currently assessed though initiatives such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme and the CETL scheme. However, whereas in research, such awards would be recognised by on-going funding through QR, there is no long-term benefit of similar successes in teaching and learning. This has led to the situation in many institutions where research is prioritised over teaching innovation, leading as it does to enhanced funding and reputational benefits.

The availability and adequacy of training in teaching methods for UK academics and the importance of teaching excellence for the academic career path, including consideration of the role of teaching fellows

  4.7  The provision of training in teaching for new academic staff is highly variable across the country. Institutions such as our own have a long-established, HEA-accredited PGCert in learning and teaching in higher education, as well as a smaller-scale accredited training course for graduate teaching assistants. Our extensive provision in this area enables all teaching staff to gain appropriate training in teaching methods including: development of programmes and modules, assessment, student support, equality and diversity, use of learning technologies, and research-informed teaching, and enables discipline-specific training to be incorporated alongside more generic provision.

4.8  The role of the HEA in accrediting such courses is crucial to enable transferability between institutions and to enhance the quality assurance of such teaching and learning programmes. However, the lack of emphasis on National Professional Standards in teaching means that the benefits of training in teaching methods risks being diluted over time as there is no requirement for ongoing professional development; staff at the University of Plymouth however do have access to CPD throughout their teaching career. It is also the case that such initial training in teaching is not compulsory in all HEIs, and may be poorly supported and resourced in many institutions. Whilst the situation does seem to be changing gradually, there is no doubt that, historically, research has been the primary driver of academic careers, rather than teaching which is often viewed as under-valued. It is important that both teaching and research gain support in all institutions—since the effective combination of the two activities is key to a successful higher education sector. A wider acceptance of the possibility of gaining a professorial appointment on the basis of teaching excellence would be helpful in this context.

The responsibilities of the Government and HEFCE in assuring (a) the quality of teaching provision and learning opportunities in UK HEIs; and (b) the balance between teaching and research in HEIs

  4.9  Like many institutions, we run an internal teaching fellowship award scheme open to staff engaged in teaching and supporting learning within the institution. However, schemes such as this are potentially under threat owing to the phasing out of TQEF funding. In view of our track record, Plymouth is likely to continue to devote substantial resources to supporting teaching and learning initiatives; however we cannot be sure that the same commitment exists across the HEI system as a whole. HEFCE could take a stronger role in demonstrating support for teaching innovation and enhancement by ensuring that there is a distinct funding scheme for such activities, allocated on the basis of previous excellence in teaching and learning and reviewed in line with developments and outputs (including pedagogic research). It is crucial that the HEA continues to offer National Teaching Fellowships which act as a major driver in terms of offering individual staff an incentive to develop their career around teaching excellence. The HEA subject centres also offer a range of development opportunities (including funding and publication possibilities) for staff interested in enhancing teaching and learning. Continued support for these centres is therefore essential.

5.0  Degree classification

Whether the methodologies used by UK HEIs to determine degree classifications and the distribution of degree classes awarded are appropriate, the potential methodologies for the standardisation of degree classifications within, and between, HEIs, and the effectiveness of the Quality Assurance Agency in monitoring degree standards

5.1  The University currently uses the established degree classification systems for all its programmes. However, in the light of employer and student feedback as well as the Leitch and Burgess reports, the university is actively reviewing its approach. There is broad agreement with the principle of recognising the wider achievements of learners, particularly within the settings of work-based and practice-based learning, volunteering and part-time employment. A working party is currently debating the effectiveness of different strategies for recognising such informal learning, particularly using innovative technologies for capturing student experience. Whilst the university welcomes the work of the Burgess Group, it seems unlikely that the final report will propose a one-size-fits-all solution. Given that the university will support and implement a new-style transcript which provides much more information about attainment within the curriculum, the main focus of the university debate will be on the recognition of extra-curricular experiences and achievements which we know to be critical to the employability of our students.

The advantages and disadvantages of the UK's system of degree classification and the introduction of the Higher Education Academic Record

5.2  Classification needs to be reviewed taking into account an industry view. Some way of summarising and measuring achievement will be necessary if there is a move towards a transcript system. Employers need a basis for differentiating job applicants and are unlikely to want to scan through a long transcript and try to assess overall ability for themselves. If this summary measure is not to be a degree class, then it has to be something that is comprehensible to everyone.

The actions that universities, Government and others have taken, or should take, to maintain confidence in the value of degrees awarded by universities in the UK

5.3  It is confidence in the university system that ensures confidence in the value of the particular degrees awarded. This confidence depends upon the level of funding and the degree of moral support provided by government.

The extent to which student plagiarism is a problem in HE, and the availability and effectiveness of strategies to identify, penalise and combat plagiarism

5.5  The question of plagiarism is important but is a rare occurrence given the totality of learning experiences and innovative measures of learning now in place. We believe plagiarism can be minimised by using an experiential curriculum and imaginative assessment.

6.0  Student support and engagement

The effectiveness of initiatives to support student engagement in the formulation of HE policy, and how the success or otherwise of these initiatives is being assessed

6.1  The University of Plymouth encourages student engagement in the formulation of HE policy. We actively engage our students in many aspects of the university and are currently reviewing ways to enhance practice.

Examples of reasons for, and potential strategies to reduce, the non-completion of higher education programmes by students

6.2  In our collective experience non-completion is a complex and many-faceted phenomenon. These are chiefly, changes in personal circumstances, financial difficulties, or a realisation that the HE experience is not for them at that moment. Financial considerations and homelife issues are particularly strong reasons amongst mature students. At the University of Plymouth our strategies include: even better advice and guidance prior to enrolment so that expectations are realistic and effective decision making has taken place; effective use of the Access to Learning Fund and similar for financial support; good advice and guidance availability after enrolment; high levels of 1:1 contact between academic staff and students in the transition period; effective induction and transition programmes to raise aspiration and embed appropriate learning behaviours. Other interventions known to be effective are those concentrating on formative assessment, and initiatives which familiarise students with examples of successful study practices and assignment work by other students—eg in peer learning or "PALS" schemes. At the University of Plymouth the "WrAssE" project is building an online library of examples of successful student assignments for use in learning about academic writing.

The adequacy of UK higher education (HE) funding and student support packages, and implications for current and future levels of student debt

6.3  There would be benefit from greater clarity and consistency around the definition of "Part-time student" across agencies and policies. Currently, the funding and support for many part-time modes of attendance is inequitable compared with full-time students, both from fees, and from eg social services support. Frequently part-time students report that they fall between the myriad of definitions, usually to their detriment.

Any further action required by the Government and/or HEFCE to ensure that UK HEIs offer students a world class educational experience

6.4  The inadequacy of rural public transport affects many students in regions such as the South West, particularly mature returners, the disabled, and WP groupings. It is not an option for many students to move to live near to the campus. At the University of Plymouth we champion our extensive FE college network, developing excellent provision locally; and continuing to support and develop further ICT solutions to support this learning.

December 2008

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