The last few days has seen that annual Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference at the impressive Northumbria University Business and Law School in Newcastle. The main theme of the conference was ‘Teaching in the Spotlight: Innovation for teaching excellence’. Indeed, it lived up to this billing with three packed days of parallel sessions covering teaching innovations from Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences to STEM and Health and Social Care.
The second day provided the most interest in terms of the TEFS agenda. The general theme of ‘Sector Priorities’ can cover a multitude of sins, but equality and inclusivity emerged in several sessions. The keynote lecture at the outset laid down a provocative challenge after an inadvertent faux pas that provided an ironic backdrop. Alison Johns, CEO of Advance HE, dispensed with her microphone and asked the audience of around 400 people if they could all hear her. In a new building, with facilities that could have won an award for inclusiveness for all disabilities, this was unprofessional and astounding to the professional audience. The irony was that she was introducing Joshua Sanderson-Kirk who was to challenge us with ‘Excellence without inclusivity is not excellence’. I am sure I was not the only one who had to refrain from calling out ‘pardon’ and there was at least one delegate with a hearing aid that would have benefited from the hearing loop had he heard her in the first place. This was almost a perfect metaphor for the detached thinking of those leading in government and in their agencies. While BAME student attainment and inclusivity emerged as a big issue in the lecture, I am sure the four black men and one black woman in the largely white middle class audience must have thought we had somehow lost the plot. When told that the so-called black attainment gap is at 24%, they might be right and conclude that there is a very long way to go. Along the way to concluding that ‘inclusivity’ was key we learned that may providers are very poor on widening participation whilst others do the “heavy lifting”. The research driven Russell Group Universities do not come out well in this respect. The simple idea that resources and time are the key to success seemed elusive in the argument; regardless of background, gender, BAME or disability.
Pressure and stress and a stranglehold tightening on the whole system
However, this point did not bypass some delegates in later workshops. The inexorable rise in anxiety and mental health problems amongst students is a big challenge for those teaching in the front line. But even bigger for the students affected. Focus on a perception of the modern student lacking in ‘resilience’ might be better redirected to looking at the changed circumstances and causes.
Denise Meyer of the University of Portsmouth provided a timely insight into how to address the ‘anxiety’ epidemic in the classroom. The stress on staff is a real problem and the idea of ‘emotional regulation’ as a coping strategy seems sensible. The advice of ‘Stepchange’ on debt stress and mental health might be considered by students and staff alike. The alarming rise in anxiety amongst post-graduate students surfaced in her session and was reinforced later by Sophie Homer of the University of Plymouth. Her work funded by the Office for Students got closest to the core of the rising problems and ‘drop outs’. The pervasive ‘academic culture’ of stress and isolation was identified with ‘stress is normalised’. Her prize-winning research and workshops, funded by the OfS and designed to prevent mental health issues escalating, should be spread much further afield and into the top research laboratories. The advice from ‘Nobelist: work-life balance impossible for scholars in short term’ in Times Higher Education today illustrates how important this mission is in the face of dangerous advice.
The presentation by Susan Cooper of Plymouth Marjon University was the first time I have heard anyone acknowledge in a formal setting that ‘widening participation’ students have to overcome deficits in time and resources. Her work reveals a microcosm of a much wider problem of time poverty and finance and its impact upon achievement. We need much more consideration of this.
A workshop run by Neil Speirs of Edinburgh University addressed social class and related pedagogy. This is a very interesting idea and many teachers could benefit from its consideration. We were reminded that the ‘Equality Act’ doesn’t protect poor people with “tough luck if you’re poor”. His main thesis was that current practice amounted to ‘symbolic violence’ towards the working class and the poor. The pedagogical approaches used in many academic settings seems to reinforce the ‘middle class’ and privileged hegemony that pervades higher education. However, as a scientist it is hard to see this extending to teaching the “laws of thermodynamics” and other areas of science. Most staff have a ‘blind spot’ about the class divide as his exercises well illustrated. His practical solution is to provide more interdisciplinary teaching that encourages more input and thought from the students. Indeed, most science education is well advanced with this concept. But no doubt his assertion that it is sometimes seen as something done by “pedagogical rogues” holds in many instances.
Metrification, metrification, metrification.