Centre for Public Policy Seminar

Earlier this year I spoke at the Centre for Public Policy’s seminar on delivering the new framework for higher education.

Here’s an edited version of my talk, which was calledTeaching and the student experience: towards a joint venture’:

I want to speak today about the present, but also about the future.

This is the moment for something that we see very little of in politics and higher education just now. A time for vision and ambition rather than covering one’s back, bickering at rivals, bunkering down, and bemoaning reductions in taxpayer funding.

It’s nearly two years since John Denham, as Secretary of State with responsibility for universities, invited me and several others to contribute to a debate about important policy issues for the higher education sector. He asked me to write about teaching and the student experience, a topic to which I have devoted most of my professional life. Some of what I recommended found its way into government policy, but as is the way with politics, a good deal disappeared. Most of that part was the imaginative material about setting us up for what might happen in 10-15 years time.

The point of my contribution was to argue that we need to produce graduates who can play a full part in shaping and responding to the uncertain world of the future. They’ll have to find resources of courage, resilience and empathy that traverse national boundaries, no matter what subject they’ve studied. To do this, I said they’d require a different kind of student experience. And that in turn will demand remodelled curricula, new quality systems, different funding models, and a more flexible academic workforce. I am not going to talk about all that today, but about the essential underpinning that can make it happen.

The foundation of it all is a rather radical vision of student engagement – the idea of higher education as a joint venture between providers and students.

That’s not an appeal to nostalgia, to the fictional days when teachers and students learned together in a kind of hazy glow of self-satisfied academic bliss. It’s a practical way of ensuring quality and high standards. It’s based on personal observation and research evidence.

These coincide in my experiences of evaluating the quality of programmes in formal audits in Australia and Sweden. One thing that marked out the really high quality, high standards places was what the students said about their role in improving teaching and courses. Students in the top programmes invariably said they saw it as their job to work with staff to enhance quality, and gave concrete examples of how they did it. And they said it with immense enthusiasm.

This is at the other end of the scale from the consumer model of higher education, which makes the student experience into something that is determined by what the university offers rather by what the student can bring. It’s an out of date, intellectually barren and factually untrue way of looking at the student experience. I prefer the positions of the National Union of Students and the National Student Forum on the matter. An engaged partnership, with students playing a part in shaping teaching, curriculum, assessment, and quality processes, produces the best outcomes for students.

Now here is the central idea. Not hard, but it needs a little thought to grasp it thoroughly.

Fundamental to the idea of partnership is the fact that that the student experience is created by students in their contact with higher education. They are integral to the formation of the experience. Their relationship with higher education determines the quality of their learning and thus the standards they achieve. Students who are passive consumers, searching for ‘satisfaction’, learn at best an imitation of the subjects they’re studying. But students who are active partners in a learning relationship understand, remember, and can apply what they’ve learned to new problems, new worlds, new challenges. They become resourceful and confident. They can think for themselves. They can create imaginative solutions to real world problems.  They are ready to become the kind of graduates this country will need in the future.

If my analysis is right, then we should be actively promoting more student engagement and building on the growing recognition that students have a major role to play in the enhancement of teaching and assessment. Let’s not forget that we already have a system of HE that supports an outstanding student experience. I don’t share the dystopian vision of a system that’s broken. Universities and colleges are already positioning students as engaged collaborators rather than inferior partners in assessment, teaching, course planning and the improvement of quality, and are using student representatives as central contributors to the business of enhancing the student experience. Let’s do more of it, let’s incentivise it.

But how?

Well, not through more exhortations by governments (or would be governments) and funders, vague ideas about linking teaching quality to resource allocation, and a scary desire for more state control.[1]

We can do it more effectively if we forget about party politics and ideology. Let’s make funding follow students and reduce universities’ reliance on public funding as a major income source. This dependence feeds the arrogant, clique-ridden, controlling and inward-looking qualities that are the worst features of academic culture. Universities as a whole still do a poor job of convincing the public of their usefulness. Struggling with rationed resources makes them ill-fitted to see beyond themselves. The endemic misunderstandings among the public and politicians of standards and quality that surface in the media from time to time are a symptom of this quaint attitude. No wonder governments want to keep control.

This is the time for a fresh declaration of university independence. They have lived on short commons and been led on a tight leash for too long. This implies student-driven funding, meaning a proportionate payment from graduates to their education in the form of a higher deferred loan, the freedom for universities to enrol as many students as they wish, and some serious input from business to student support. The opportunity for all students to choose to pay their fee up front is essential if we are to have a fair system and is not a new idea. It a very well established practice in Australia, the country from which we borrowed the idea of the deferred loan as a solution to the student contribution problem in the first place.

There will be tradeoffs; as Isaiah Berlin cogently remarked, “The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all the good things co-exist seems to me.. to be conceptually incoherent… We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss”. We’ve already seen from the pained and exaggerated reaction to recent government actions concerning university finance that it will not be simple for them to relinquish the comfort blanket of assured public funding.

Independence is not a recipe for anarchy and self-referential preening. It will not be easy for universities: they will have to accept the negative externalities of this more market-based approach. This will require controls to mitigate the inefficiency of competition for students based on imbalanced positional power (‘top’ universities may or may not offer the best student experience, for example) and more importantly, to guarantee quality and standards.

There no room in my vision for the naïve view that the market alone will assure a high quality student experience. The present government has been wedded to this idea of the student as consumer for a long time, showing a remarkable capacity to tolerate the incompatible concepts of more centralised state control and intense belief in the cleansing power of free markets. The belief that we can improve quality by providing students with more information about what they can expect is part of the government’s plans in Higher Ambitions and indeed was the original reasoning behind the National Student Survey in 2001.

It would seem that the Conservatives share the same brash confidence in market forces. Fees are a good thing, not because they provide a basis for supporting a high quality system, but because they turn students into savvy buyers: “The arrival of the student consumer has the power to force universities to think much harder about what they are offering, and thus to drive up quality” says the recent Policy Exchange report.

My aspiration is different. Despite the constraints needed to handle externalities, the net effect of a student demand driven policy, plus the increased resources realised by a non-discriminatory approach to fees, will be that the system will grow. This will enable more fairness in provision, because expanding higher education systems create opportunities for more students to benefit. And higher education, in my view, is a good that deserves the widest possible distribution.

This is the infrastructure that will enable us to realise the goal of higher education as a collaborative effort between academic teachers and students. This is my vision: a student experience based on sustainable funding will lead to the imaginative and resourceful graduates we will need to take us into tomorrow.

[1] “The Government must compel universities to collect data or assist in the collection of data on employability, salary outcomes, contact hours, class sizes and teacher numbers, as part of a deal for introducing fees. In return for higher fees universities should guarantee a significant investment of time and resource in maintaining and improving the quality of experience students will receive”. More Fees Please? Policy Exchange, February 2010. My emphasis.


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