The past few years have seen enormous changes in the UK HE environment, one of the most significant of which has been the drive towards creating a ‘student-centred environment’. This formulation encompasses both the idea of student-centred learning, and the university experience as a whole. In the fee-paying open market universities have rebuilt campuses, redesigned curricula, and made fresh promises to students about the quality of the experience they can expect from going to university – and this can present some challenges to the academic whose focus remains on the pedagogical side of things.
So in this utterly changed environment, how is an academic to survive? How to square the imperatives of knowledge and learning with these new pressures? A short discussion of some of the key changes afoot may be useful in orienting yourself in an environment geared more towards the student experience than ever before.
Recognise the challenge of the pastoral role
Academics’ role as pedagogues is changing, with many universities now placing renewed emphasis on their function as tutors and mentors to students. Universities require academics to increase their contact hours with students, and a (possibly unintended) consequence of this has been that academics are being called upon to provide more informal pastoral support to students. While embracing the opportunities for supportive interaction this provides, it is also is a good time for academics to remind themselves of their professional limitations and to acquaint themselves with the professional services network (counselors, doctors, therapists, and so on) that exists in and around a university precisely for this reason.
Value the NSS, student focus groups, and staff-student liaison
The rise in fees (and defacto lifting of the cap on fees that looks set to come in with the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework) has seen great emphasis placed on the NSS results. Now is a good time to familiarize yourself with the terms of the NSS. Which aspects of the student experience are in your control, for instance, and which might you change? Similarly, you are likely to come across the concept of student focus groups from now on, and it may benefit you and your department to consider how you might create some of these yourselves to build a successful narrative about the student experience that can be passed on to incoming students.
This brings me to what used to be called ‘staff-student liaison’ and is now more commonly known as ‘academic community’ liaison. These meetings are now conceived as joint enterprises in which staff and students meet as partners in a shared commitment to improving teaching and other assessment matters, rather than as a forum for students to petition academics.
Be smart with increased contact hour requirements
You may also find yourself being asked to increase your contact hours with students, while simultaneously being encouraged to teach students to be independent learners. These two things are not as incompatible as they may at first appear, since expanded hours need not be spent on direct teaching, but on a number of tasks designed to allow the student to take the lead in his or her own learning. You might use these increased hours to provide students with opportunities to develop their skills as independent learners, allowing them to take responsibility for such activities as designing seminar presentations, leading field trips or organizing supplementary reading groups – with you present as a guide and mentor, but not taking an explicit leadership role.
Understand changes in student record access
Students now have the right to build a complete record of their progress online, allowing them to take more responsibility for their progress. The amount of information available to students varies from institution to institution but will include ongoing mark transcripts, and in some cases written feedback on essays and other forms of assessment. Students’ access to cumulative data as they move through their degree is now a key part of their experience. By recognising that this data is no longer the province of the teacher, to be dispensed at only certain points of the year, you will better understand your student’s approach to his or her learning - and this can be an invaluable tool in guiding him or her towards becoming an independent learner.