What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

First published 3rd August 2016 on the Society for Research into Higher Education’s News Blog

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

PM3199093But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact.

Earlier this year, I published initial evidence from a collaboration between researchers at the University of Manchester and Kingston University. We took one new building at one higher-prestige university, conducted detailed interviews with 10 staff members and 28 students, and surveyed over 200 other users. Positive feedback was common: students relished airy, well lit corridors, with comfy seating areas for pre- and post-session collaboration; open spaces could be ‘colonised’ and made their own; water coolers, and other features associated with workplace environments, drove new conversations.

Campus-Recreation-Center

However, not all responses were as expected. Many students told us that attractive-looking buildings helped them to choose their university, but when asked to rank what would most improve their experience now, fewer than 5 per cent prioritised their learning environment. Students’ primary needs were much likelier to be staff-related – they wanted more academics to be more available more often, both formally and informally.

Among staff, frustration was often expressed about ‘flexible’ spaces that could not be easily moulded to their teaching needs. Though communal areas were welcomed as a means to foster cohort identity, many associated capital expenditure with a tacit expectation that they should teach students in ever-larger groups. The design of buildings was often seen as a reflection of managerial naivety about their role: “I don’t even take a lunch break, let alone go and mingle,” said one in relation to an atrium designed to stimulate staff-student interaction. Others noted that many students lacked the critical thinking and other independent skills that their new learning environments implicitly demanded.

Indeed, a recurring theme in the interviews was the transition from school or college to university, which many felt was being disrupted, not smoothed, by campus architecture. “In college, you knew5images what everything was for,” said one student, capturing the wider view that more guidance was needed for students to exploit communal learning spaces. Few comparisons between school and university facilities favoured the latter. Technology was a particular focus of misunderstanding, with the design of new estates seeming to make untested assumptions about students’ digital learning dispositions and behaviours. While staff struggled to make unnecessarily intricate equipment work, students remarked that they didn’t “need everything all hi-tech all the time” anyway.

Our research, though no more than exploratory, raises important questions about the extent to which universities’ investment in new estate reflects students’ perceived pedagogical needs. It is clear that the sector could better consult about buildings’ design and better evaluate post-occupancy usage. A 2015 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute refers to an “arms race” in capital expenditure, and the risk is that pedagogy becomes the first casualty of universities’ recruitment wars. Only through long-term, systematic evaluation can we know whether the enormous resources being allocated benefit current students as well as lure new ones.

CJHEJones, Steven, Michael J. Sutcliffe, Joanna Bragg and Diane Harris. 2016. “To what extent is capital expenditure in UK Higher Education meeting the pedagogical needs of staff and students?” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Published online: 09 May 2016. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2016.1181881

 

 

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“Fulfilling Our Potential”: what policymakers’ rhetoric reveals about the future of Higher Education

Note: this piece was originally published on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog (September 29th 2015)

Jo-JohnsonSpeaking earlier this month at the Universities UK Annual Conference, the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, offered few new pointers about the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) but may have revealed more – not necessarily intentionally – about the government’s broader view of the Higher Education sector.

Take the comment about new providers’ courses being validated by established universities. According to the Minister, it’s “akin to Byron [Burgers] having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.” The point being made is clearly about perceived anti-competitive practices, with eager young upstarts being denied market entry by larger, entrenched operators. However, the metaphor is a curious one, with the new providers framed as purveyors of posh hamburgers and their validating institutions as lower-end fast-food joints.

Byron-Burger-02-hop-1-interiorsNick Hillman cleverly traces the root of the analogy to Matthew Batstone, co-founder of the New College of the Humanities, whose favoured version was more confectionary: Batstone likened the validation process to new chocolate bar manufacturers needing approval from Mars Bar. However, as John Gill notes, “high-profile problems have dogged attempts to inject competition” into the Higher Education arena. And though some alternative providers have targeted Byron’s end of the market, not all private colleges have been made of the finest ingredients, as investigations by Andrew McGettigan and others have shown.

Also revealing was Johnson’s definition of inspiring academics as those “who go the extra mile, emailing feedback at weekends and giving much more of their time than duty demands”. Within the sector, eyebrows lifted at the expectation that university staff should work harder still, and the implication that their weekends aren’t already spent on the job. Some wondered whether excellence within all professions would now be judged on out-of-hours contributions, and questioned why academics’ work-life balance was being further eroded. Remember that 40% of university teaching staff are on temporary or zero-hours contracts, and that university management is plagued by gender imbalance.

But the definition was probably born more of frustration than disrespect. Finding TEF metrics that actually work has proved trickier than anticipated. Learning gain might (and probably should) be measurable at local levels for individual cohorts of students, but it doesn’t allow the kind of cross-institution and cross-discipline comparisons that the TEF craves. Employability and salary data tell you lots about students’ background characteristics but, as Graham Gibbs notes, they remain hopelessly distant proxies for the quality of teaching they received at university.

images3Elsewhere, the Minister’s speech did offer some optimism for the sector’s future. The goal of increasing by 20% the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020 is to be applauded. UCAS was ordered to publish more detailed breakdowns of candidates’ background characteristics and application patterns, as the Social Mobility Commission requested some time ago. There were even intimations of a lighter-touch Research Excellence Framework (REF), with welcome acknowledgement that many in the sector want an audit that is “less bureaucratic and burdensome” and which “takes up less of the time that could be spent more fruitfully on research and also, of course, on teaching”.

Keeping the sector on side remains the TEF’s biggest challenge. Mike Hamlyn rightly worries about higher education “being seen as a transactional good, rather than a transformational experience,” while Paul Martin Eve fears that the TEF heralds “a massive coming wave of shake-ups to Higher Education finance, both research and teaching”. Pleas to rebalance teaching and research may seem more reasonable to academics if excellence in the former was acknowledged to rely on excellence in the latter.

TEF-Briefing-August-2015Disappointingly, the student voice is fading from TEF debates, with the NUS executive electing for “principled disengagement” because of threatened links with an inflationary fee rise. This despite the NUS having previously issued an excellent briefing paper on the topic.

The full title of the Minister’s speech referred to “fulfilling our potential”. The challenge ahead is to ensure that “our” embraces the whole of the Higher Education sector, and that “potential” denotes opportunities for it to become more equitable, more pedagogically responsive and more transparent about what it does. Greater care should be taken with language. How exactly is “patchiness” in the student experience being differentiated from learner-appropriate pedagogical diversity? Who exactly is lamenting the “lamentable” teaching?

That “extraordinary teaching deserves greater recognition”, however, is incontrovertible. As is the claim that Higher Education is “the most powerful driver of social mobility we have”. The TEF will soon find friends in the sector if it nudges institutional cultures in this kind of direction.

But equally important is that the TEF skirts avoidable pitfalls, in terms of both policy and rhetoric. Such pitfalls include hierarchy-enshrining outcome indicators, student-alienating associations with a fee hike, and tortuous metrics that reward only the wiliest gamers. The sector may also have had its fill of burger metaphors.

What can the TEF can learn from the REF?

(Note: I published this piece first under the heading “Seven rules the Teaching Excellence Framework should followvia the Guardian’s Higher Education Network on 07.07.15…)

students-in-lecture-hall-010

The proposed TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) is often characterised as a “REF (Research Excellence Framework) for teaching”. It’s a description that reminds us how much less attention university teaching has received than its showier sibling, university research. But to what extent is it a useful, or even meaningful, comparison? Can measurements of research quality be mapped straightforwardly on to teaching? Has the REF proved so successful at capturing research excellence that it’s now the gold standard for evaluating all university activity? Does HE teaching even need to be REF’d?

indexSuch questions defy simple answers. But if the TEF is the new kid on the block, perhaps there are ways in which it could learn from the REF’s triumphs and mistakes? Below are seven principles that haven’t always been synonymous with the sector’s research audits, but which might help the TEF off to a good start:

1. Be ungameable

Universities, like schools before them, have grown adept at gaming the best possible results from what’s available. The danger is that the game itself becomes the metric, with ‘winning’ institutions not necessarily those offering their students the best possible teaching, but those able to manipulate data, craft narratives and spin results in the shrewdest way. We can’t claim the TEF is for our students’ benefit if the final outcomes comprise an intricate series of metrics, league tables and seemingly contradictory information based on dubious formulae, such as ‘Teaching Power’ or ‘Teaching Intensity’. Of course, no auditing framework can ever be completely ungameable, but the TEF would benefit from a set of guidelines that keep the playing field level and the sector honest.

2. Be Collegial

Good teaching rarely occurs in isolation. Within good university departments, colleagues draw on one another’s strengths and compensate for one another’s weaknesses. Will the TEF place individual lecturers in competition, divide disciplines and create new hierarchies? Or will it facilitate constructive conversations, developmental feedback and candid evaluation?

3. Be long-term

Just as it’s difficult to measure the enduring quality of a research paper for serval years, sometimes decades, after its publication, so too can the value of good teaching not be immediately obvious. University degrees are three or more years in duration to give students the time and space to ruminate, reflect and ripen. Confident, socially-aware graduates are not the product of one bell-and-whistle-filled session (when the peer assessors happens to be around); good lecturers play the long game with their students.

4. Be cheap

The sector can ill afford to be spending millions more pounds measuring itself in increasingly incestuous ways. The TEF should be inexpensive to administer, both in terms of direct costs and the opportunity costs of taking lecturers away from their students.

5. Be inclusive

The expense and agony of deciding who gets entered can be avoided by making inclusion criteria as broad as possible. A TEF score should reflect the teaching strength of a whole discipline; it should not be the product of arbitrary, localised inclusion mechanisms. Some pedagogically-challenged staff would no doubt prefer to hide behind a research grant or admin role, but assigning values to one or two superstar lecturers in a department is of little value. Shouldn’t everyone involved in teaching, from GTAs to departmental heads, be eligible?

6. Be modest

Trying to distinguish between teaching that is “world-leading” and that which is merely “internationally excellent” is unlikely prove fruitful, especially if we’re not asking the opinion of anyone from outside the UK system to benchmark our judgements. Criteria should measure what matters, not just what lends itself to getting measured. The language of the TEF should be realistic and restrained, not lavish and conceited (“innovative, outcome-oriented delivery of outstanding learner experience” should be avoided at all cost!). What students want, broadly speaking, are enthusiastic lecturers who want them to flourish and make time for them accordingly.

7. Be open-minded

Might a TEF reward a safe, conservative approach to teaching over bolder, risk-taking methods? Might lecturers strive for the equivalent of four 3* journal articles rather than gambling on a major, paradigm-shifting pedagogies? Teaching thrives on experimentation, inventiveness and fresh thinking; if the framework encourages boxes to be ticked and learning outcomes to be dryly evidenced, the sector misses an opportunity to learn from its more visionary communicators. Universities are the place for young people to learn independent thinking skills, to become crack problem-solvers and to begin viewing the world through an informed, critical perspective.

Our teaching must reflect that ambition. indexUniversities Minister Jo Johnson, when introducing the TEF last week, quoted one of his predecessors, David Willetts, as saying that “teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education”. It’s a baseless claim, likely to further disaffect a sector with research long acknowledged to punch well above its weight and academic staff long pressured to excel at everything, always. But with the English HE system among the most expensive in the world, our students have every right to ask why university teaching has lagged behind university research, often relying more on the good will of committed staff rather than secure institutional scaffolding.

Identifying what good research looks and feels like, and then attributing a numeric value to it, has been a challenge for the sector. Teaching will pose no fewer problems. But perhaps by thinking carefully about the principles that we want to underpin a new framework, and learning from those upon which other frameworks sit, we increase the chances of coming up with something that’s genuinely helpful both for ourselves and for our students.