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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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New higher education institutions: a real chance to innovate?

by Katherine Emms

Since the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, England has seen a surge of new higher education institutions adding to the traditional higher education  landscape. The Act made a number of major changes to the sector, one of which was the introduction of the Office for Students (OfS), which was given responsibility to grant degree-awarding powers to providers and the right to use ‘university’ in their title. The Act was intended to make it easier for more providers to enter the market, and in the words of the 2018 Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, it was “designed to facilitate innovation, avoiding overly-prescriptive, process-focussed approaches that might place limitations on creativity”. The invitation was welcomed by a number of providers and now, a few short years later, some are already taking in their first cohorts of students. But are these institutions truly offering something different to students, facilitating innovation and diversification in a crowded marketplace, or just replicating existing models?

At The Edge Foundation we wanted to investigate the early experiences of these new higher education institutions (HEIs) and understand what their guiding principles and reasons for setting up were, as well as how they were interpreting their visions and putting these into practice. We have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with founders and staff across several new HEIs, with more dialogue to follow as these institutions move through their early stages of operation.

Employability is increasingly seen as a responsibility of HE, not just as a separate task of the careers services but one which should be an integrated element within academic learning (Crammer, 2006). New HEIs have highlighted the gap between existing provision and employers’ needs, and see their offering as a way to address this issue, claiming that their innovative approaches could better support the employability of students. One way this has been tackled is through strong collaboration with employers from the outset of designing the course and its content. Some new HEIs emphasised the importance of a ‘backwards design’ which is demand (employer)-led rather than supply (academic)-led. Having industry experts involved in skills gap workshops and continuously having employer representatives as part of the validation process were some of the ways that supported this.

Most of the new HEIs we spoke to focus on broadness of provision in a number of senses. First and foremost, they set aside traditional subject silos and instead are looking to offer interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees, or offer a broader notion to a single subject area (e.g. bringing the social science aspect into engineering). The arguments put forward were that complex world problems are not fixed within a single discipline and require a broad knowledge and skill set that spans disciplines in order to be solved. One way to support this broad provision is through staff recruitment at the new HEIs; staff are recruited partly from industry, partly from the world of academia, but ultimately having the right attitude and a team working ethos to work collaboratively across disciplines are considered key.

The broadness theme also plays out in terms of the development of the student. Looking beyond academic and knowledge-based learning, the development of the whole student is seen as core to their provision. All aspects are important – from ensuring the development of transferable skills that are integrated into the curriculum, to ensuring students take part in meaningful placements and have employer interactions to develop the ‘professional’ skills they need after graduation.

Another way these new HEIs are pushing back against traditional modes of delivery is through their focus on team work, and problem-based learning or project-based learning. Almost all our participants emphasised that their HEI has no lectures, instead focussing on students working together on authentic real-world issues often set by an external client, making them relevant to industry. Alongside this, exams are not the main form of assessment, instead a range of more ‘authentic’ methods were discussed including reflective portfolios, podcasts, blogs, and pitches to businesses.

These new HEIs vary across their stage of development, their size, mission, and delivery, although some common factors have been set out above. One thing that all the new HEIs have had to navigate was the registration and policy landscape. Some of these were partnering with or being ‘parented’ by an established university to go through the process and some were going at it alone. This brought differing issues and seemed to influence the degree of innovation they could deliver. To some extent working within the parameters of another university can stifle the innovation by having to fit their delivery into traditional and established ways. On the other hand, these established universities have the advantage of bringing credibility to the new HEIs, which can be beneficial both in terms of the registration process and the attractiveness to new students.

Ultimately these HEIs are new and are yet to see a full cohort of students graduate, therefore we have limited markers of success so far on which to evaluate them. Likewise it is difficult to see how innovative these providers are, as one stakeholder remarked: “innovative might be a great idea, but until it’s tested is much harder to understand whether it really is innovative”.Edge will continue with our research over the next year and beyond to understand more about the experiences of these new HEIs and their students.

Katherine Emms is a Senior Education & Policy Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Her main areas of research are in higher education, vocational education, skills shortages in the economy and employability skills. Current and published research can be seen here: https://www.edge.co.uk/research/research-team/kat-emms/. Twitter @kat_emms


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Curating Academic Knowledge

by Emil Toescu

We live in interesting times in higher education. In the immediate, the pandemic imposed the use of distance learning, leading to a different educational experience and a very different dynamic in the relationship between students and lecturers. And so academic teaching goes on, just displaced from the physical to the virtual space.

But there is another, more fundamental development in European academia: the initiation of a range of multi- or cross-discipline courses. These range from the now fashionable Liberal Arts and (Natural) Sciences 3-4 year degree course (developed mainly in The Netherlands and the UK), developed from the more established US educational model, to a variety of term- or year-long optional courses that aim to provide a multidisciplinary and sometimes interdisciplinary perspective on a particular theme. As an example, for two years I have run for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences students in Birmingham, UK, a course titled ‘Emerging Modernity’ that aims to provide a wider understanding of what ‘modernity’ is by looking at what it means from a variety of perspectives (historical, philosophical, sociological) and how it came about in a range of disciplines (biology, physics, sociology, economics). 

These initiatives acknowledge, de facto, that beyond the traditional disciplines, the real world is complex, full of interlinked problems, that do not easily yield to reductionist approaches, They require a capacity for engaging with multiple perspectives. Examples frequently used in such discussions are sustainability, climate change or gender studies. Nearer to the present moment, the global economic and other consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the policy responses required can be best understood via the lenses of: philosophy (utilitarian theory – what is good for the most of people); history (past plagues); geography (spatial human interaction patterns); politics (government and power structures). We can also user basic science approaches (understanding scientific research methodology and protocols) while taking into account the issues of the limitation of technology (assuming it will solve all our problems). 

Beyond the crucial importance of specialisms, and paying attention to the smallest details, we also  need to see the bigger picture. Like anything else, this capacity to move focus from the wood to the trees and back, this experience in zooming in and out with grace and fluidity, requires training.

Dealing with the intricate issues of today also requires an ability and willingness to view issues from different angles and to scan for multiple perspectives. This is akin to developing a conceptual tri-dimensional vision, rotating and inspecting an issue from various planes. Such an ability requires, again, training and exercise.

Interdisciplinarity is a key concept in approaching these topics. There are many definitions of the concept, that are applicable both to interdisciplinary research (IDR) activities and interdisciplinary education in academia (IDEA) [1], all starting from the view that interdisciplinarity describes an “interaction that may range from simple communication of ideas to the mutual integration of organising concepts, methodology, procedures, epistemology, terminology, data, and organisation of research and education in a fairly large field.” [2] One way to avoid the possible, and frequent, confusion between the terms multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, is to point to the integrative nature of the interdisciplinary efforts, rather than the simpler, but still important and relevant, juxtapositions that characterise the multidisciplinary approaches. 

Because of its potential for integration of different perspectives and approaches, interdisciplinarity has been a buzz word in academia for some time. In research, in the UK, the REF framework for assessment of the quality of academic output has many examples of such efforts in the impact cases submitted for assessment (also illustrated by striking infographics [3]). The REF in 2021 will have a whole section, Area Studies, dedicated to IDR [4]. In academic education, interdisciplinarity is by now a keyword on most UK Universities’ prospectuses, reviewed in a lengthy report by the Higher Education Academy [5].

There is one important teleologic characteristic that features in many discussions: interdisciplinarity is not an end in itself, but instead an approach, a tool to be used to answer specific, identifiable questions of needs [6]. While this perspective is immediately relevant for the research activity, it also has consequences for delivering interdisciplinarity in academic education. An interdisciplinary course should be organized, ideally, based on a theme: an issue, an idea, a topic, an era. [7] The point is that different disciplinary perspectives on the theme are integrated and provided as readings and assignments. In such courses, the lectures will reflect a balanced mixture between the specialist and visionary perspectives and show a mutual respect between these two approaches, a respect frequently missing as one view is considered too narrow-minded and the other one too superficial. This purpose can be achieved by taking a different approach to academic education: curating academic knowledge

The concept of ‘curating’ is rather fashionable. Until recently its use was restricted to a category of museum professionals who were in charge of maintaining museum collections and organising exhibitions. The job title has its origins in the Latin cura meaning ‘care’ and designating a person that ‘has care of’ or ‘takes care’, not only in the physical but also in the spiritual sense. 

The meaning evolved, as OED notes, from the stricter “one who cares for the souls” (1432) to a more practical “manager or steward” (1632) and “keeper or custodian” (1661). As the parish curate looks after the parishioners and their spiritual well-being, so a museum curator takes care of the museum collections and also perhaps the visitor’s well-being. 

Since the mid-1990s, curating started to have another dimension and be seen as a creative activity, and the curator is, more and more, an auteur who  proposes an idea for exploration and experiments with different formats, different ways of experiencing the art, and creating different meanings. Old views and formats are challenged and new forms are invented and proposed.

In the wake of this development of meaning, curating has become a buzz word in popular culture, and nowadays one can curate almost anything, from web content, or experiences, to performances, music or even food. Thus curating becomes more akin to conceptualising ideas and selecting, juxtaposing and interpreting items to provide an illustration of a central idea. It is time, maybe, to extend this curatorial concept to education and use it in the development of the new multi- and cross-disciplinary academic courses, in which the course organiser becomes a curator. 

In universities, any course organiser is, by definition of his or her terms of employment, a specialist in one particular discipline or field of learning. As such, in erecting the scaffolding of a new cross-disciplinary course, s/he cannot provide the texture and the fine grain of other disciplines, neither of concepts or methodologies, and a specialist in that topic will be required. This is even more relevant when the courses attempt to bridge the science-humanities divide. Humanities, with their softer and fuzzier discipline boundaries provide a better environment for the development of interdisciplinary approaches, and it is not surprising that most of the liberal arts and interdisciplinary courses in various universities are in humanities. Disciplinary boundaries in sciences are arguably more defined and the methodologies working within those field are perhaps more specific, but all these should not detract from the effort to create interdisciplinary modules.

The academic curator will thus provide the theme, the guiding lines and the cross-disciplinary perspective and from this position will interact with academic colleagues, or other necessary contributors, to bring to life the proposed academic theme and give students the opportunity to engage with the subject from a variety of perspectives. 

At the very least this will provide a multi-disciplinary context, in which the various contributors will engage with the central theme from their specialist perspective. But such an approach has also the potential to provide a true interdisciplinary experience. The presenting specialist is now able to engage with another discipline, and the students will get a feel for how to integrate knowledge into a more inclusive framework of analysis.

Museums are places of learning and recently became more active spaces: through smart curating they are creating an environment that fosters making new connections and encourages discoveries of new perspectives. Through a similar creative academic curation, academia can create a new student-centred environment, helping the development of the professionals of the 21st century. 

Dr Emil C Toescu is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK, and Deputy Director, Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries, Medical School,  at the University of Pecs, Hungary. He is working on researching the interfaces between science and humanities as seen from a science perspective, and can be reached at emiltoescu.ac@gmail.com.

References

[1] Klein, JT (2017) ‘Typologies of Interdisciplinarity: the Boundary Work of Definition’, in Frodeman, R, Klein, JT and Santos Pacheco, R (eds) (2017) The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity

[2] Heckhausen, H (1972) ‘Discipline and interdisciplinarity’ in: Apostel, L, Berger, G, Briggs, A and Michaud, G (eds) Problems of Teaching and Research in Universities Paris: OECD

[3] interactive graph: https://www.digital-science.com/visualizations/ref-case-study-similarity-network/; background presentation of analysis: https://www.digital-science.com/resources/digital-research-reports/digital-research-report-the-diversity-of-uk-research-and-knowledge/. 

[4] https://www.ref.ac.uk/about/blogs/a-disciplinary-perspective-on-interdisciplinary-research-area-studies/ 

[5] Lyall, C, et al (2015) Interdisciplinary provision in higher education: current and future challenges https://documents.advance-he.ac.uk/download/file/4604

[6] Council of Graduate Schools (2014) University Leaders Issue Statement on Interdisciplinarity in Graduate Education and Research https://cgsnet.org/university-leaders-issue-statement-interdisciplinarity-graduate-education-and-research

[7] Encyclopedia of Education (2020) Interdisciplinary Courses And Majors In Higher Educationhttps://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/interdisciplinary-courses-and-majors-higher-education