Good teachers in some university departments are a rare breed - or so it seems if you talk to today's undergraduates. But are dreary lectures, a surfeit of chalk and talk, and a failure to engage new? Probably not. University teaching has rarely been accorded the attention it deserved.
Arguably, however, things have got worse as universities have expanded to take in more students at a time when staff numbers have not increased to match. Moreover, academics are under more and more pressure to perform in research - which means more neglect of teaching and more undergraduates being taught by PhD students rather than lecturers or professors. Now, the Government is attempting to right the balance.
Today, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) announces its biggest initiative to enhance teaching. It is putting £315m, over five years, into setting up Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in universities all over the country, thereby fulfilling a pledge in the White Paper on higher education. "This is a big investment," says Liz Beaty, Hefce's director for learning and teaching. "Good practice will permeate throughout the country. Centres will benefit increasing numbers of students over the five years of funding and have effects beyond particular subject areas. Some of the money will go on promoting generic ideas, such as employability or workplace learning."
Universities were invited to bid for the money and 74 of 259 applications were accepted. One or two universities have done particularly well, notably Plymouth (see box, right) and the Open University (OU), because they have outstanding reputations for innovative teaching. The money is to reward excellent teaching and to deepen its impact.
Plymouth has had four bids approved. When you consider that a large university like Plymouth, with more than 27,000 students, could apply for up to £4.5m for each centre (£2m for capital and £500,000 a year for running costs), you see how much cash could come flowing in for the benefit of students. "We're cock-a-hoop about this," says Ivan Sidgreaves, Plymouth's pro-vice-chancellor for teaching and learning.
Plymouth's money will be spent on new developments and refurbishing old buildings, rather than on new structures. For example, the small planetarium on campus will be upgraded with new technology to enable students to simulate field-work sites. Field work is an important part of geography and environmental sciences, and Plymouth's students are taken to Europe, Australia and Hong Kong to explore the earth's surface for themselves. The refurbished planetarium will enable them to be better prepared for their field-work trips.
The OU has gone one better and had a fifth centre approved - on music education - but that is a collaborative effort led by Newcastle University. The new money is enabling the OU to improve its impressive facilities for teaching. It is establishing a Centre for Personalised, Integrated Learning Support to ensure that its 180,000 students are helped in the difficult business of studying at a distance. The OU is known around the world for the support it gives students through its associate lecturers, but the centre should improve this.
Science and technology teaching is being given a boost via two new centres: a Centre for Excellence in Innovative Physics Teaching, which is being established with Leicester and Reading universities; and a Centre for Open Learning in Maths, Science and Technology. Finally, the OU's new Work-based Learning for Professional Development Centre will build on the good work that has been going on in health, education and business programmes.
Another university with a good reputation for teaching is Warwick, which has won two bids. One is for a centre that will involve students of English and theatre studies in a partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford. Students will develop their acting and other stage skills, as well as their knowledge of theatre history and rehearsals by working with RSC actors.
There will be an international playwright in residence, based at Warwick University, and a new RSC/Warwick professor of creativity and performance. A studio space will be built on campus. But the learning won't be one-way. The RSC actors will be given master classes by the university's academics and will be trained in the background and context of plays.
"The process of making theatre is an interesting model for good practice in teaching and learning," says Professor Jonathan Bate, professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Warwick. "A good student experience is akin to a good rehearsal process. The new centre will enable us to explore and exploit a teaching model that offers some of the most important transferable skills we give our students: the ability to think oneself into the other person's point of view, to work as part of a team and to find answers through the process of framing good questions."
Warwick's second centre cuts across the curriculum. Grandly called the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Education, it is a joint venture with Oxford Brookes University and aims to give students research projects to improve their performance in their final year and give them "employability skills".
All Warwick's students already do a 10,000-word research project in their final year. "The idea is to promote research in the undergraduate curriculum," says Dr Mike Neary, the director of undergraduate studies in Warwick's sociology department. "We want to develop the relationship between research and teaching, not just by ensuring that lecturers' teaching is informed by research but by getting the students involved in their own research." Two new lecturers are being appointed and some undergraduate studentships will be set up.
The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is also concerned about the question of making its graduates employable. With its money, it is setting up a centre for young musicians, where the next generation of instrumental music teachers will be trained to teach the young people - aged from four to 18 - who fancy learning, say, the flute or the drums. The college has already established a programme to train teachers of string instruments. The new centre will enable it to extend this to wind and percussion instruments. There is a national shortage of instrumental teachers and no specialist PGCE programme for them. The college will be helping to fulfil Government policy on music teaching with its new centre.
As mentioned above, some of the bids are collaborative efforts between universities. Liverpool Hope University College has put together a centre with 15 other institutions, including Brunel, Leeds, Reading, Brighton, Bournemouth and Manchester Metropolitan universities to provide material that will support students in their learning. If higher education institutions have students who need help with, say, essay writing or note-taking, they will be able to access such material electronically. It is initiatives like this that show the new centres will have an impact well beyond the individual universities and colleges concerned.
It is to be hoped that they will galvanise academics in these institutions to take a hard look at their teaching. And then students will enjoy their learning.
IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE
Of the four centres of excellence for teaching and learning being set up at Plymouth University, the most ambitious will revolve around education on sustainable development - energy conservation, waste, procurement policies and so on. It aims to embed the subject in all areas of the curriculum.
At the moment, students of building, architecture and law learn about sustainable development, but Alan Dyer, a principal lecturer in education, believes that all Plymouth's students would benefit from classes in the subject. "This is an area that really has to be cross-curricular," he says. "Everybody can do something about how we live on the planet. It touches everybody."
Staff will be sent on three-week courses to Schumacher College in Dartington (named after Fritz Schumacher, the 1960s guru and author of Small is Beautiful), which is a partner college.
Another centre is being established to improve the use of what is called experiential learning in geography, earth sciences and environmental sciences. A third will concentrate on work placements, particularly in health, for nurses and others in professions allied to medicine who are learning their ropes in the Peninsular medical school, a joint venture between Plymouth and Exeter universities. This will require a new resource centre to be built in Exeter.
Then there is the collaboration with 15 other colleges, led by Liverpool Hope University College (see main article), to produce material to help students with their teaching and learning. Plymouth would like to see learning centres developed in areas such as Barnstable, in north Devon, and some parts of south Devon, too.