A little earlier this year something possessed me to think it might be a good idea to present something at the Excellence in HE conference that Leeds Beckett hosts annually. It’s run by the quality team so goodness knows what I was thinking. I either wasn’t or I was feeling disruptive and a bit naughty.
I have some poorly thought through thoughts on Excellence in HE and have spent some time doing a few bits of research that speak to the issue. I’ll come back to that in a moment. When the day came and I stood at Crossflatts station in the rain I was cursing myself. A day, a WHOLE DAY, away from writing my book and having to engage with people who can say ‘Excellence in HE’ with a straight face.
I actually had a great day. After the usual welcome we heard from Ant of WonkHE who told us all about TEF and how it tells us nothing about teaching (or excellence) and how the results are totally meaningless but there is some quite interesting data we should all go away and look at – because it tells us something – even if that something isn’t about teaching. I’m ok with that. The day had started with something that made sense. Then came the second keynote on the role of governing bodies in HE. I’m afraid I tuned out. I heard ‘accountant’, ‘leadership foundation’ and ‘committee of university chairs’ (or something) and saw white slides with lots of black text and I was gone – I spent a delightful 40 minutes in my own head – sorry. My bad, I’m sure.
Then we had coffee and split into groups. I’d really wanted to go to the session on Research Informed Teaching but I couldn’t – I had to be in the Learning from Research session to give my talk. The first presentation was great – about dissertation bootcamps and a field trip to Malham youth hostel to walk, think, write. How awesome is that. Such a great opportunity to engage properly with students and treat them as humans rather than numbers. What a great way to foster individual excellence and to inspire and be inspired. Then I was up. Not using a powerpoint confused the organisers for a minute or two but then I was off. The paper after mine was also interesting – matrix learning and resilience in a number of disciplines. The last paper I didn’t really ‘get’ (and I heard it twice because it was repeated in the afternoon) – it was about Dance education and university students going into schools to teach dance (I think, but I sort of tuned out. I needed more coffee and was getting hungry).
After lunch the sessions were repeated so the Dance paper was first up and then it was me again and then my colleague Teresa told us about her work on transition from 6th form to university and how we can’t really expect students to be independent learners overnight. Then we had coffee and finished with a plenary summarising all sessions. It had been an unexpectedly good day.
So what were my thoughts on Excellence in HE. Well I’m interested in the rhetoric around excellence. And I think it’s all wrong. Excellence is a buzzword – it’ll fall out of favour soon enough and we’ll all be talking about something else. It’s hard to define and we all see it differently. But because it is hard to define we struggle to measure excellence so we measure a proxy or rather lots of proxies instead and pretend that they tell us something about excellence but usually they don’t – they tell us how many students got jobs or how much they earn or what grades they came and left with. Excellent teaching is measured in module evaluation scores covering all sorts of proxies. But when, through my research and informally, I talk to people about excellence it is rare for tangible things that can be ticked off lists to be mentioned – usually it is about the emotion of a situation or context, about how a teacher made us feel, how a research paper made us think, how a well timed and well constructed question by a teacher made us see something in a different light altogether. Excellence is not always (or even often) synonymous with a good student experience of being happy and getting what you want – students I spoke to often talked about excellent teaching making them deeply uncomfortable and being very challenging.
I’m also interested in how universities present ‘Excellence’ claims and mostly on the websites I studied they don’t unpick their assertions at all. Some (guess which ones) claim they are excellent teaching facilities and offer excellent student experience because they are highly ranked research institutions. Others claim to offer excellent teaching because their staff all (or mostly) hold teaching qualifications and others claim that excellence because their staff hold professional (industry) qualifications. None of those claims are justified or explored further. Anyway, I rambled on about all of this for a while but my thinking sort of got to this: We need to move away from thinking about excellence as something that can be achieved, measured or even really articulated and accept that it means different things to different people – as such we can all be excellent to some people (students, colleagues, managers, funders….) some of the time but we can never be excellent to everyone or even to some all of the time (and for me that means choosing who is my priority – some things that make it more likely that students get an excellent learning experience might be in conflict with what management expectations of my excellence are – guess who wins). Also, because excellence means different things we can and should take a more personal approach to excellence and remember that our students are not numbers, they are people, people who all have the potential to be excellent some of the time. I think, and this was prompted by one of the comments in the plenary, that we need to shift our focus away from what good or excellent teaching is because that isn’t getting us anywhere and instead think about what conditions we need to create to allow for excellent learning. I said in the first iteration of my paper that inspirational teaching might be excellent teaching and that was picked up in the plenary with a throwaway remark that I had possibly just come up with that on the day or ‘maybe she had thought about it before’. I wasn’t quite in punching distance to the bloke who said that (of course it was a bloke) but I thought that was a bit rude and I wondered whether he would have said it about a bloke. He also didn’t use my title when he referred to me but he did use the title when he referred to one of the blokes. Every day sexism for you but that’s not the point of this post…
I’ll keep thinking about this stuff. There’s something about the way we talk about excellence in HE that is fascinating.