This week, NACUE Chief Executive Johnny Luk attended a round table discussion hosted by the University Alliance. These are his thoughts about the proposed 'Teaching Excellence Framework' and the changing face of higher education.

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Recently I was kindly invited to a University Alliance round table discussion, alongside other educators and government officials to talk about the government’s intention of creating a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.

This is a new initiative proposed by the government to ensure consistent metrics in good teaching in our universities, which may contribute to university funding streams. It was interesting to hear a wide range of views on what constitutes good teaching. Some of this included the importance of research, pay and conditions for educators and being employable.

I think they all had good points to make. Naturally I was one of the youngest people in the whole room, by about 20 years.

From NACUE’s perspective, having the fortune of sitting next to the government’s senior civil servant in charge of developing this, I suggested the following:

  • Engagement is more important than pure research prowess in early stage undergraduate learning. Research is important, but frankly for some subjects, like science, for the first year or two, we need the basics first, and we are often taught this straight from a good textbook. It is more important for students’ minds to be fully engaged in the first place, with charismatic lecturers rather than dull PowerPoint slides. Having a very high caliber professor who can’t communicate is bad news for students.
  • Formal education can be quite ‘staccato’. There needs to be more seamless interaction with other departments and also within intra and extra curricular studies. For example if you are learning business, the enterprise societies should be involved.
  • Student satisfaction is the most important factor. Some educators said student satisfaction is not the key criteria, as students sometimes don’t know what they should know, or will not work as hard as they don’t want to be stretched. I disagree. Students work hard and demand quality and quantity. If they pay so much for tuition fees, it’s no surprise that art students hate the idea of having just five hours of lectures and a library card and being told they are gaining ‘independent learning skills’. The customer is always right – and students are now the customers. Otherwise they will go elsewhere. Simple.
  • The way students are rewarded needs reform. There is inconsistency in the way degree marks are awarded, depending on both the subjects and institutions you gain it from. That’s not surprising; it must be a nightmare to moderate. However what frustrates me and many of our community is how other factors, like extracurricular activities, which frankly are key in developing competency skills, are still not recognised. That should change. I also think the whole degree classification system is a blunt system and we should consider a point based system like the US.

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We were also posed a fundamental question on whether teaching is important for a student at university.

Yes of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s the key factor for a student to select an institution. For the student, as they consider their options, teaching forms part of a bigger story of whether the environment is positive, the people are nice, whether there are interesting societies, good accommodation, (whether it is true or false) prestige and a social life.

The education sector is going through one of the biggest revolutions ever, with the introduction of tuition fees and changes in funding. Its role has changed. What outcome do we want from all of this?

I hope it is not just making students more ‘employable’, pushing them out into 9-5 lives till they marry, have kids and retire. Let’s plant a little spark in their lives, that magic fairy dust that tells them they can do anything they want, that the world’s problems are ready to be fixed. To be able to apply what they have learned in their respective specialisms in the real world, and not just for the tiny proportion who do wish to pursue a pure research role. That’s what our community is all about in NACUE, that magic spark.

To me, that forms the basis of education, and is more powerful than just having a letter on a degree certificate. If I get that again, (and luckily I did) I would be happy to fork out for another round of education.

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