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Plenary session 2: Recent developments in L&T and the response of European universities

02 October 2017

More attention to Learning and Teaching: We’re Still Not There Yet
Speakers at the EUA plenary session on developments in L&T call for recognition, policy support, funding and vision.

1st European learning and Teaching Forum Plenary session 2

“We’re giving our education mission more attention at a political and institutional level. But we’re still not there yet.”

This is the view of Michael Gaebel, director of the Higher Education Policy Unit at the European Universities Association (EUA).

Sharing the preliminary findings of the EUA’s Trends Survey 2018 at the EUA First European Learning & Teaching Forum in Paris, 28 September, Gaebel highlighted a number of key developments and critical challenges facing higher education in Europe.

Learning and teaching are increasingly prioritised by European higher education systems, said Gaebel. However, there is still "a gap to fill" to match the attention and resources dedicated to research.

The 2018 report takes a focus on learning and teaching and in the 43 higher education systems surveyed we are seeing convergence across key trends in this area. Things like social inclusion and engagement, an increasing demand for more flexible delivery of degree programmes and short non-degree programmes, digital learning and new approaches – problem-based learning, for instance - are among a number of factors driving strategic opportunities to boost education.

The data also points to a growing need to recognise “good teaching.”

“Some 66 percent of systems have some measures in place to reward good teaching through career development, awards and so on. And we are seeing a prioritisation of training and learning today where 10 years ago there was nothing.”

In the TRENDS 2018 survey, collaboration between institutions and with external players in the public and private sectors appears to be a key enabler for changing learning and teaching approaches. This confirms the crucial importance of programmes such as Erasmus+, and the need for the Bologna Process and university associations to become active. But there are other challenges.

“Asked for the biggest obstacles, there is no surprise that funding in support of teaching and learning development comes up first. We are all pleased with the changes that happened so far. But if we compare the spend on research, for instance, we can see how far we still have to go in this field. But what is interesting, this that there is quite strong agreement among responding institutions that career development”.

Risk of fatigue?

Changing gear from the macro perspective to the micro, Pedro Teixeira, Vice-Rector of the University of Porto, presented findings from a survey he and colleagues have conducted with lecturers at Portuguese universities.

His study, which covers a full 10 percent of Portugal’s academics, reveals that while learning and teaching are a priority, challenges related to governance, quality, funding and modes of assessment remain a cause for concern.

“Universities and teachers are under pressure to respond to challenges that range from diversification to an increasing formalisation of quality assurance and the need to stay relevant. The typical response is to monitor and assess. But the risk here is of increasing bureaucracy and a lack of follow up. We monitor learning and teaching through mechanisms like student satisfaction, which is positive, but nothing happens afterwards. We need to follow up or risk fatigue. We need to close that circle.”

Learning and teaching account for more than 50 percent of teachers’ time, said Teixeira. Yet this is not recognised or rewarded formally - in his view, due to the difficulty of quantifying what constitutes “good” in education.

“Research assessment is as sophisticated as the Michelin guide. With teaching quality assessment we are the level of a basic health and safety manual. We need to rebalance this.”

The need for a vision

“We need to ask ourselves every week what our raison d’être is. Universities should have a vision. They exist to serve students and societies.”

Cecilia Christersson shared best practices from Malmö University, where she is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Global Engagement and Challenge-Based Learning.

The university, she said, is characterized by the diversity of its student body. “Two thirds are women, 33 percent are non-native students, and some 70 percent are first-generation academics.”

As well as diversity, said Christersson, the Malmö vision is built on a multi-disciplinary approach.

“We have a multi-disciplinary faculty and disciplines that are tied to societal impact. So you have the Faculty for Culture and Society, the Faculty for Health and Society and so on.”

Students, she said, are seen as “change agents.”

“Higher education is a driver of societal transformation. Academic skills are essential to progress and we need to prioritise critical doing just as much as critical thinking. We believe that our students are vehicles for positive change just as much as our research. This is what informs our strategy and our vision as a university.”

Policy at a European and national is now needed, said Christersson, to drive the transformational potential of higher education.

“Learning and teaching needs to be rewarded in the same way as research, which could mean recognition of professional teaching qualifications in parallel to research qualifications. We would like to see a European framework and funding for research on learning and teaching, as well as clear strategies at national and European levels.”

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