Vice-Provost's View: UCL 2034 - the opportunities for education and scholarship

20 March 2014

As we consider our strategy for the next 20 years, I want to reflect on the opportunities for education and scholarship it offers.

A principal theme of the draft UCL 2034 strategy is the university becoming “a global leader in the integration of research and education” and underpinning that by offering an outstanding student experience.

It is here, I believe, that we have the opportunity to take UCL’s global position even further forward.

Students

So what is the background to this strategic ambition? Exceptionally well-qualified students from around the world continue to show strong interest in applying for the vast majority of our programmes.

These students progress through their programmes very well. They achieve excellent degree outcomes and go on to secure graduate-level positions or undertake further study.

In contrast to this buoyant picture, however, student satisfaction, particularly as recorded by the National Student Survey, is a continuing cause for serious concern.

In many disciplines across UCL, our students record outstanding satisfaction with their experience – English, Laws, Archaeology, Medicine, Mathematics and Statistics to name a few.

However, in some disciplines, satisfaction is towards the lower end for any institution in the country. This is not being ignored. Heads of Department and their subject teams are tackling this issue by engaging with students and drawing on the Student Academic Representatives (StARs) programme.

Research-based pedagogy

So this is the background against which we consider our strategy for the next 20 years. UCL 2034 speaks of students understanding how knowledge is created, being partners in that process and having experience of working with the uncertainties at the edge of knowledge.

The Provost has spoken of reviewing all UCL programmes to ensure that they have a “research-based pedagogy”. But what does adopting such pedagogy mean for staff and students?

I am grateful to Dr Dilly Fung, Director of UCL Centre for Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT), Dr Fiona Strawbridge, Director of UCL E-Learning Environments, and Professor Carmel McNaught, Visiting Professor, CALT, all of whom have been very influential in helping me develop my thinking in this area.

UCL can be rightly proud of its extraordinary achievements in research; however, the processes of scholarly inquiry should underpin all activities in UCL.

Scholarly inquiry is the thread running through UCL that binds our complex community together. Professor McNaught has proposed that the intersection of research-based education, ‘authentic learning’ and communities of practice is where we should be focusing our attention to develop a distinctly UCL approach to research-based pedagogy.

She argues that designing and implementing research-based education is best achieved by using the concept of authentic learning. This involves the creation of realistic tasks that are as close as feasible to ‘real-world’ problems and contexts.

Professor McNaught also draws on the notion of the collaborative power of communities of practice – groups of people who, by sharing a common activity, help each other develop – to generate a stronger and more creative pool of ideas for student learning activities.

We are developing a range of resources through CALT to support staff and students. Firstly, there are case studies in research-based education that draw on questions that are applicable to many disciplines.

For example, what are the topics that have sustained research interest in the discipline for a long time and are likely to engage and inspire students? And what are currently the most important research areas in the discipline that students should be aware of and gain some experience in?

Connected Curriculum

A major developing initiative is the UCL Connected Curriculum, which is being championed by Dilly Fung and Fiona Strawbridge. One of the downsides of our current approach to curriculum planning is that we can become too focused at the module level, rather than at the programme level.

The result can be a fragmented curriculum and an excessive assessment burden. This in turn can lead to a fragmented learning experience for students.

As a result, they may take a strategic approach to their learning, working to pass each separate module rather than adopting a more integrated approach to the subject as a whole.

A fragmented structure means it is difficult to embed into students’ experiences the key themes that employers increasingly seek out.

For example, what it means to ‘know’ and ‘research’ in an evolving subject area; academic skills and research integrity; work experience; digital literacies and practices; and notions of global citizenship.

It also means that some students can find it hard to build relationships with other students or to feel connected with UCL as a scholarly community.

The idea being developed for the UCL Connected Curriculum is that one module will be nominated at each level of the undergraduate curriculum as a Connections module.

This would be a type of module that, although still focusing on a topic relevant to the subject discipline, would share certain characteristics with other Connections modules across the university.

For example, students could be asked to demonstrate that they are making conceptual connections between different topics in their own subject(s) or that they understand the notion of interdisciplinarity and the nature of knowledge as co-constructed and always open to peer-review.

Equally, such modules could encourage them to understand their own identities as academic and lifelong learners in relation to a complex, rapidly changing and digitally-mediated world.

We will be consulting on research-based pedagogy and the Connected Curriculum over the coming months and I look forward to your involvement.

Reward and recognition

A radical re-think of our approach to what education means in one of the world’s greatest research-intensive universities can only be truly successful when the contribution of staff is properly recognised and rewarded.

UCL 2034 acknowledges that, in common with many other universities, UCL has struggled to give parity of esteem between teaching and other academic activities, notably research.

We are commencing a piece of work to ensure that our reward and recognition processes are aligned with our strategic objectives.

UCL Arena, which is being launched at the 3 April UCL Teaching and Learning Conference, is one such initiative. But words, processes and initiatives alone will not be sufficient.

The change required is cultural and the extent needed is profound, if not radical. Even semantics count. A colleague observed recently that we typically speak of “research opportunities” and “teaching loads”.

When we truly harness the creative and intellectual firepower of our students and speak of teaching opportunities, rather than loads, then we will have realised the ambition of UCL 2034.

Anthony Smith

Vice-Provost (Education)

Comments? Please provide your thoughts on this form.