The changing UK higher education landscape
The last decade has seen rapid and dramatic changes in the higher education landscape in the UK. The lifting of the ‘cap’ on student numbers led to increased competition between higher education institutions (HEIs) and the influence of new market forces, whilst the introduction of the OfS has seen the replacement of a relatively benign funding body, with a new sector regulator.
Student numbers have increased rapidly resulting in the ‘massification’ of the HE sector, and fundamental changes in the make-up of the student body in most HEIs. Despite this there is intense competition to recruit students, and HEIs are opening their programmes to more diverse and non-traditional cohorts than ever before. Student support services and resources have had to be reconfigured, and academic programme teams have had to adapt their pedagogies accordingly. Previous quality audits of research have evolved into the now familiar REF, but we have also seen the introduction of the TEF, and more recently the KEF.
What may have seemed like stability has been replaced by a culture of what sometimes feels like an avalanche of rapid and fundamental changes, some of which impinge on the financial sustainability of institutions and some of which have driven major cultural changes – not least a rapid shift in student expectations of the higher education experience, and the relationship between institutions and their students. The relative strengths and performance of HEIs is now more transparent than ever, and reflected (however crudely) via published university league tables, NSS results and TEF rankings.
How have institutions responded?
Faced with these external and internal changes many HEIs have responded by reviewing the structure and organisation of their taught programmes at undergraduate or post-graduate level (or both). In some cases this process has been driven by a perceived need to reduce complexity and unnecessary ‘variance’ in the design or delivery of programmes, or by a need to reduce costs and achieve improved efficiencies in delivery.
In others, the development of new approaches to either structure or delivery has been deliberately focused around existing institutional strengths, such as the perceived ‘nexus’ where research and teaching intersect. Many HEIs have well-established and highly visible ‘Graduate Attributes’, and these have either been designed in tandem with new Curriculum Frameworks or have driven an enhanced subsequent focus on consistency in the design and/or delivery of programmes to enable these to be achieved.
A renewed focus on ‘teaching excellence’ or ‘student outcomes’ – driven in part by the NSS and the TEF – has also resulted in some institutions focussing more on ‘pedagogy’ and/or ‘student literacies’. A defining feature of many new Curriculum Frameworks is the inclusion of such literacies.
The emergence of Curriculum Frameworks
The growing recognition in the sector of the importance of defining or articulating institutional ‘distinctiveness’ in the design and delivery of programmes, and the approach taken to supporting effective learning, is reflected – at least in part – in the emergence of ambitious and often highly innovative Curriculum Frameworks of various forms.
One of the best know is the ‘Connected Curriculum’ at UCL, which focuses on the centrality of the power of research and way this informs both teaching and student learning. Now well-established, the Connected Curriculum provides UCL with a highly distinctive USP. At Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), the emergence of the ‘Active Curriculum Framework’ places a set of ‘powerful pedagogies’ and ‘student literacies’ centre-stage, with new ‘breadth modules’ (Ruskin Modules) providing students with new opportunities to step outside their particular specialism and engage with a broader curriculum.
At the University of East Anglia (UEA), the development of the ‘New Academic Model’ between 2010 and 2015 constituted an ambitious series of regulatory changes that placed a renewed focus on setting high expectations for students and ensuring greater consistency in programme design. Similarly, the University of Sunderland’s ‘Integrated Curriculum Design Framework’ claims to “bring together, for the first time, various key policy drivers such as embedding graduate attributes, promoting employability and developing an inclusive curriculum which enhances the student experience”. Other similar Curriculum Frameworks include those at Reading University, the University of Portsmouth, which has a set of ‘hallmarks’ that courses have to be aligned with, and the Inclusive Curriculum Framework at Kingston University, which ensures that “the principles of inclusivity are embedded within all aspects of the academic cycle from the development and revitalisation of curricula, through the practice of teaching and learning, to the process of assessment and finally full circle to programme review, modification and revalidation”.
At St Mary’s University, Twickenham, we have been involved in leading, with students and staff, the design of a new Curriculum Framework (see figure below) which focuses on a more consistent and coordinated approach to learning and teaching (via an agreed set of ‘Effective Teaching Practices’ and ‘Student Literacies’) and the delivery of a new set of ‘Soft Skills’, ‘Practical Skills’, ‘Graduate Qualities’ (values) and ‘Graduate Attributes’.
This new framework includes a strong emphasis on inclusive approaches to teaching and assessment, the creation of a new set of ‘Champion’ roles embedded in Faculties (for Employability, and Diversity and Inclusion), and interdisciplinary ‘breadth modules’ which allow students new opportunities to study outside the comfort zone of their own discipline at Level 5 and 6.
The challenges of Curriculum Frameworks
Of course, proponents of disciplinary variance and academic autonomy might argue that establishing an institutional-level Curriculum Framework or over-arching structural constraints of any kind constitutes an unnecessary and, indeed, undesirable objective that inhibits creativity and academic freedoms. This is a legitimate concern and one of which those involved in developing or championing Curriculum Frameworks need to be mindful.The reality, of course, is that in most HEIs academic programme teams already have to design and deliver their programmes within various pre-existing expectations and regulations (which are in turn normally strongly in formed by sector framework documents such as the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) and a panoply of other QAA documents), and also – crucially – the QAA subject benchmarks. Some may also have to align to pedagogic and content guidelines and advice given by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PRSBs). Even so, any Curriculum Framework is likely to be unsuccessful unless these concerns are confronted early on and overcome through extensive consultation and debate.
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About this week’s hosts
Dr Adam Longcroft is the Head of the Centre for Teaching Excellence & Student Success at St Mary’s. He began his academic career as an Academic Director in Continuing Education at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 1995. He went on to serve as Teaching Director in the School of Education at UEA, and the University’s Director of Taught Programmes between 2011 and 2016. In the latter role he was involved I leading the development and implementation of UEA’s ‘New Academic Model’ – a University-wide initiative focused on streamlining the structure and regulations relating to the University’s undergraduate and post-graduate programmes. He subsequently led the design and initial roll-out of Anglia Ruskin University’s new ‘Active Curriculum’ between 2016-18 as the Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching, and was more recently appointed as the inaugural Dean of Learning & Teaching at St Mary’s University in Twickenham. In this role he has led the development of a new undergraduate Curriculum Framework which is now being implemented across the University. Adam is a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow (2015) of the Higher Education Academy (now AdvanceHE).
Dr Iain Cross is the Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching in the Centre for Teaching Excellence and Student Success at St Mary’s. He works with the Associate Deans in the Faculties and the CTESS team on a range of learning and teaching enhancement projects. He joined St Mary’s in 2011 as Visiting Lecturer in Physical Geography, and has since held positions as Programme Director for Geography and Academic Director for Teaching and Leaning Quality and Enhancement. He has particular interests in technology enhanced learning, and using virtual reality in education. He is currently researching climate change teaching in higher education. In addition to leading continuing professional development of academic staff, Iain has been instrumental in developing a new Personal Tutor Dashboard at St Mary’s and is playing a key role in implementing a new student record system at St Marys. He is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
A Wakelet of this chat will be posted as soon as possible after the event.