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Interview of Oliver Vettori: European universities’ learning and teaching renaissance

07 September 2017

Oliver Vettori_kleinEuropean universities’ learning and teaching renaissance

As we approach the opening of the European University Association’s first European Learning and Teaching Forum in Paris 28-29 September, we speak to Dr Oliver Vettori of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Oliver is Dean of Accreditation and Quality Management and Director of Program Management and Teaching and Learning Support. He is also a member of the EUA Institutional Evaluation Programme expert pool and is an advocate for European university collaboration on learning and teaching evolution. 

WU (Vienna University of Economics and Business) is one of the largest universities focusing on business and economics in Europe. It supports more than 23,000 students and over 700 researchers and teachers.

Has learning and teaching become more of a priority in recent years at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business and, if so, why? Is this a national trend?

In recent years Europe has experienced a learning and teaching renaissance that is largely due to an acceleration of existing trends at the political level and within the labour market. In order to cope with the expectations of society and of students, there is an increasing understanding that universities need to tackle learning and teaching differently. It isn’t just about content; it is also about pedagogy and didactics.

One of the challenges in this area is that learning and teaching covers a very broad area touching upon everything from curriculum development to student support and within different institutions there are sub-trends and differing focus areas. 

Technology is also a big driver of today’s focus on learning and teaching. We need to prepare people for life in a digital world and the availability of technology is changing both teaching approaches and the way that people learn.

The desire to have more international students has also focused attention on learning and teaching because it calls for attention to be paid to how we cope with the diversity of student backgrounds. A foreign student studying a full course brings different views and also different expectations of what learning and teaching should be. 

What is good university teaching and learning and how should quality be assessed at institutional, system or international level?

Good university teaching and learning enables people to grow. It takes the student on a transformational journey. It is very difficult to assess how and where the transformation has happened but the end result is that the student is prepared and able to adapt as the world changes. 

One mandate in learning and teaching is to counter the assumption that opinion that is not founded in fact is valid. Students today are more critical than they have been in the past but they are not necessarily critically reflective. Good learning and teaching encourages understanding before opinion forming. 

Academia has become more and more specialised with experts working in fields that have become much narrower. As a result, research-led teaching is not creating the mindset of enquiry most institutions want to see.  We need a more holistic approach in learning and teaching if we are to achieve the level of outcome we seek with students. 

A collective effort is needed to value teaching more. Teaching is often seen as a chore where research is perceived to be of higher value; it is part of the job but not the most important part.

Increasingly university management is driving a vision that is more learning and teaching focused with senior leaders changing priorities in favour of learning and teaching and supporting those who want to invest in it. Actions are being put in place to help encourage and help people. 

What level of priority does learning and teaching have at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business? 

Learning and teaching is a high priority. My department started with evaluation and quality assurance and has expanded to focus on programme management, learning support and teaching development. For most of our high impact courses, professors meet with us. Nevertheless, existing structures and other priorities can often get in the way resulting in a tendency to fall back on our record in research. There is a need – and this relates to all universities – to break with traditions to realise a greater focus on learning and teaching.

When it comes to promotions, in Austria learning and teaching is still a minor consideration. Teaching is reviewed but professors don’t have to do a lot to meet the requirements. And I’m not convinced that ranking learning and teaching performance would help because ranking doesn’t change behaviour. Behavioural change has a lot to do with political and institutional priorities but also with support. We can send young academics on staff development courses but it might make more difference to send them to their colleagues’ classes or to introduce a supervision or feedback process. Awards are good but they tend to recognise the people who are doing it well. We need to give people time to develop and design new courses. There are curriculum reforms today but a lot of course design stays more stable than it should because no-one applauds you for evolving your course.

Does WU Vienna University of Economics and Business ensure a minimum standard of learning and teaching quality? If so, how? 

There are minimum standards but we need to change them more often. Standards should make you think. In academia we understand standards in relation to research better than teaching. 

Ranking plays a big role in some countries but not in others. International students also mostly use them. For national students, ranking plays a much less significant role in decision-making that the location of the university. This can limit competition between universities. 

What is the impact of a low focus on learning and teaching? 

Universities that do not focus on learning and teaching are sabotaging themselves in the short to mid-term because within the higher education community they will lose legitimacy. It is not good for the image of the institution. Longer-term, universities will marginalise themselves because governments will not pay for an increasing avalanche of unused research and a lot of new institutions are emerging that provide specialised education on a higher level.

Are there good practices you are aware of that we could share across the European university community? 

There has been inspiring progress in many Scandinavian universities in terms of community building. They have tried to engage the whole university in the development of policies and initiatives. The university of Uppsala in Sweden is a good example where different actors have been involved. The UK has also done interesting work on student engagement, making students care and feel part of their university to trigger their commitment to learning. 

There is also movement in evidence based scholarship of learning and teaching; experiments about approaches that work better than others. 

Here in Vienna our learning and teaching award scheme is state-of-the art. We don’t focus on teaching qualifications but on course design because we want professors to invest in course design and we offer them support to do so helping them to debunk myths about how it should be done. 

The EUA Learning and Teaching Forum is a very positive evolution at the international level bringing a wider group of different countries and institutions together than has been done before. It is an excellent opportunity for international networks to tackle some of the issues I’ve been raising in this discussion. 

Are there external and internal barriers to progress in learning and teaching evolution? If so, what are they?

There is a mental barrier that relates to some university members not understanding what needs to be done. Another barrier is internal in that all promotion paths go through research. And there is a lack of professionals in the area of learning and teaching development at university level. This is a very new field.

What is your message to policy makers interested in evolving university learning and teaching at national and European levels? What should they consider?

Many policy recommendations are too full of buzz words and are overloaded with conflicting recommendations. There is a need to focus on what will make the biggest difference and point out directions that could be taken. We also need to dedicate funding to the solution. There is hardly any funding for learning and teaching as the concept of lifelong learning for academics is yet to take root. 

What advice on L&T would you give a new university lecturer facing students in the coming academic year?

Think about what you want to get out of your years at the university. If you want to be a top researcher you can use effective learning and teaching to get you there because teaching is all about understanding concepts and communicating them. And if you are in the university for only a few years and then plan to work in industry, think about the skills that you will need in the future labour market and whether you are developing them through your learning and teaching. Many people have not thought about the benefits effective learning and teaching can bring to them. 

Register here to join Oliver Vettori and other European university advocates for exchange and success in learning and teaching at the European University Association’s Forum in Paris 28 and 29 September.

European University Association (EUA)

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