I haven't had a lot of time in the past couple of weeks to think about blogging, and indeed I haven't devoted as much time as I should have to my H807 studies. The main reason has been that I am currently leading a complete review of our undergraduate programme. This process has to take place every five or six years as part of the University's quality assurance procedures. On the one hand it is a great opportunity to reflect on what we are doing and review everything to make sure it is up to date and meets the needs of today's students and that we have courses which are capable of producing graduates with the right skills and knowledge. However, on the other hand, it's such a laborious process. It started in earnest last June, and the reviewed courses won't be implemented until the coming September. That's fifteen months, during which time I have produced a mountain of documents and had more sleepless nights than can possibly be healthy!
The process has involved (and still involves) a programme team of twenty staff, a panel of four academics from other schools in the university, a panel secretary from the Quality and Standards Office, and two external advisors to the panel – one from industry and one from another university. It began with a workshop for the whole team and progressed through numerous team meetings, some of which involved fairly frank and forthright exchanges of views!! I have personally written tens of thousands of words in the form of a critical review, a new programme handbook, programme specifications and various appendices and supporting documents. The process has not exactly enhanced my personal wellbeing and I have to confess to periods of extremely poor humour in the past couple of months.
The documents are now all with the panel and the final review meeting takes place next week. There's not much we can do now other than try to prepare for the panel meeting. Once the review meeting is over (and assuming it is all approved) then the work begins on implementing the new programme.
Why am I writing about this? Well, there are several issues which emerge from the process which I think are relevant:
- Is this really the most effective way of ensuring that courses are reviewed and that quality is maintained? It just seems such a bureaucratic process. I can't help thinking that in the coming years this sort of approach simply isn't sustainable. Universities are going to have to be much more responsive in the future as we face up to the twin challenges of financial restrictions and ever more demanding customers.
- The timescales involved in the current QA process will not be appropriate in the new world. If universities are going to be genuinely responsive then the procedures for reviewing courses and developing new courses will have to be much more streamlined.
- Does a system such as this really promote innovation? When students are paying £6000 to £9000 per year they will be expecting courses which are bang up-to-date and delivered in ways to suit them. In my view that means courses which are innovative. The innovation could relate to the learning and teaching methods, or to the structure of the courses, or to the use of the latest technology. Innovation will distinguish the courses which thrive from those which fall by the wayside. Universities will be ruthless in axing courses which don't attract and retain students, and out the door with the courses will go the staff who deliver them. Despite this the whole bureaucratic infrastructure of many universities is geared towards maintaining the status quo.
- Do academic staff really appreciate the scale of the challenges which higher education will face in the next few years? I would say that a significant proportion certainly do not. We are blessed with some fantastic staff who are great teachers and genuinely want to provide a top class higher education experience for our students. However, I can't help thinking that some staff seem to believe that we can carry on doing things as we always have done and everything will be alright. What will make them realise that irreversible changes are about to happen and the old ways of working are simply not going to be appropriate. We might not like it (and there's lots I don't like) but I don't think we can resist it. What we can do is gear ourselves up to cope with a new environment, and that means thinking differently.