There are numerous myths surrounding the nature of higher education and the different types of universities in the UK.
Some people believe students have very little contact time with their tutors, that ‘blended learning’ is just a cheap option as it uses online elements of teaching and that all students are 18-19 years old when they enrol.
The reality is somewhat different, as anyone who works in a modern university will testify. Researchers at the University of Wolverhampton carried out an investigation into the teaching and learning experience in post-1992 universities on behalf of the thinktank Million+.
The resulting report, Teaching That Matters, highlights ‘a teaching revolution’ going on inside modern universities. Launched by Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, Teaching That Matters argues that transforming teaching in higher education will be an important part of delivering employability, stimulating economic growth and tackling unemployment for the long-term.
It illustrates how modern universities such as Wolverhampton deliver valued aspects of employability through a greater degree of professional development and skills training.
A shift in the role for lecturers, tutors and students themselves is needed as part of the teaching revolution, according to the report, with more collaboration with employers and local communities on real-life projects and greater responsibility for students to lead on sharing skills.
The University’s Centre for Developmental and Applied Research in Education (CeDARE) produced the influential report, which includes case studies from Wolverhampton and high profile success stories such as Oscar and BAFTA winning graduate Peter Bebb, who received a clutch of awards for his role on the film Inception.
Professor Mark Hadfield, Director of CeDARE, explains that Million+ was keen to highlight to the coalition government the nature and provision of modern universities. “It was really a myth-busting exercise,” he says.
“There are lots of myths about contact time and types of delivery and we try to challenge these. We wanted to show the quality of teaching and learning available, its innovative nature and that modern universities have to play the same quality games that all universities do. We wanted to move away from the notion that modern universities are only good at working with certain types of students.”
The team analysed existing research and looked at policy focused on higher education. Professor Hadfield explains the findings were very interesting.
“We looked at effectiveness from the students’ perspective using insights provided by the National Students Survey (NSS). We also looked at graduate employment and destinations to consider the benefits of higher education in the longer term.
“Although today’s students and recent graduates have been studying during a recession, the evidence still suggests you are more likely to get a job if you have a degree.
“There are always questions about how we grow the economy. One way is to support small and medium sized enterprises to take on one or two people. If we want to grow the knowledge economy it is not about getting more people to go to Oxbridge, it is about getting people who don’t traditionally go to university to go to modern universities. So the teaching and learning experience at new universities is effective in terms of educating people from nontraditional backgrounds and employability, but it also helps the economy on a broader level.”
The report includes case studies of innovative teaching at modern universities, including Greenwich, Bedfordshire and Leeds Metropolitan.
One such example is the development of an e-portfolio system at the University of Wolverhampton which is designed to increase the support on offer to students, enhance on–going learning and improve professional practices.
Students use ‘Pebblepad’ during work placements to maintain contact with their peer group and tutors. It also allows students to capture their thoughts and experiences and helps to reduce feelings of isolation when they are on placements.
So why are modern universities so adept at providing innovative teaching?
Mark says: “Million+ universities understand what constitutes powerful teaching and learning and effective pedagogy, so they can innovate in their curriculum because they can base it on what actually works.
“But in the report, we didn’t try to say there was a big split between innovative and traditional teaching. Modern universities deliver lectures, seminars and small tutorials but also offer innovative teaching.
“There are different mediums and spaces and tutors have to work out what is the most effective for the particular group of students they are working with. Any form of learning will get repetitive, but if you mix it up then it will be relevant and traditional methods are an important aspect of that.”
The report also looked beyond the walls of academia and to higher education’s role in the wider community.
“It is not just about employability, it is asking ourselves questions about citizenship, being part of society and taking an active role in your locality,”
Professor Hadfield continues. “It is important to take a holistic view of higher education; it is not just about whether you can get people a job.”
It is rare for a week to go by without a story hitting the headlines about further planned changes to higher education, the challenges of rising tuition fees facing students and their families and questions about the rigour and effectiveness of the teaching experience.
Teaching That Matters aims to inform the policy debates that rumble on concerning higher education, and help define what the ethos and purpose of universities will be in the medium term.
As Mark Hadfield says:“We are in a political and financial context where people are questioning what the role of universities is. This research challenges some of the stereotypes that some people hold of modern universities and articulates some of the real successes and innovations. It is hoped the research will increase the understanding of modern universities’ significance not just to the local but also the national economy.”
Teaching That Matters is available from the Million+ website: www.millionplus.ac.uk