Undergraduates and employers reap benefits, says Alastair Sim
By the time a school-leaver reaches university to study for an undergraduate degree, as thousands have done throughout September, they have already spent up to 13 years learning in a formal education setting and face another four years of study, give or take. Universities also teach over 70,000 mature students at undergraduate level, who come from the opposite side of the spectrum, having had many years away from formal education.
Both sets of students present a significant challenge to the universities that receive them. How do Scotland’s higher education institutions ensure their approach to teaching is fresh, interesting and challenging in order to motivate both groups of undergraduate learners?
The good news is that Scotland’s higher education institutions are doing this and doing it well, as judged by the students themselves. The latest results from the national student satisfaction survey, which came out over the summer, found 87 per cent of full-time students at Scottish universities were satisfied with the quality of their course – the highest satisfaction level reported by students across the UK and equaled only in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t stop there; the same survey found more students at Scotland’s universities found their course intellectually stimulating than their peers in England or Wales. Scotland shares an 87 per cent satisfaction rating on this measure with Northern Ireland.
Amongst the many factors that help keep Scotland’s approach fresh and inspiring is a commitment to continuous enhancement in learning and teaching; an ethos that runs deep in Scotland’s universities. Responsibility for enhancements sits in universities’ own hands and Scotland’s universities were the first to make the process of enhancement a highly inclusive process with students given a voice as a key part of the process. Making students active participants in shaping the education they receive takes today’s higher education a world-away from the passivity implied by the outdated notion of “reading” for a degree. The model of enhancement and student involvement has now been replicated across the rest of the UK and throughout Europe.
Other stakeholders to have a voice in curriculum design and assessment are employers and professional bodies. Scotland’s universities firmly believe in the value of education for its own sake but that sits comfortably alongside a strong focus on the ambition for many entrants going to university, which is to improve their career prospects. Every one of Scotland’s universities has embedded an explicit employability agenda to ensure that staff teach, and students learn, with one eye on how the knowledge, attributes, skills and experience being developed is applicable to the world of work. Employers are involved in the design, development and evolution of university courses and many professional bodies accredit university degrees as a hallmark of the relevance the content holds for the profession.
Universities are also keen to take advantage of the opportunities that new technologies can offer the world of teaching, including distance learning and cheaper access to course materials. Improved technology has also seen the development of virtual simulators in some disciplines which allow for student training in highly technical and high-risk manoeuvres in everything from healthcare to the oil industry, without risk to patient or oil field. The DART training facility at Robert Gordon University, which contains a full-scale replica of an offshore fixed platform, submersible and deep-sea vessels and jack-up rigs is an example of the latter and within healthcare, the University of Dundee’s SimMan 3G, in its Dow Clinical Simulation Suite can simulate a patient’s cardiac arrest, giving medical students a safe space to hone their skills.
Much has been written recently about MOOCs – massive online open courses – and the impact they may have on the “typical” model of higher education teaching. MOOCs are unlikely to replace current models of higher education but universities are keen to see what opportunities exist within the wider principles of ‘open education’. Earlier this year the Open University in Scotland partnered with the Universities of Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Glasgow and the University of the Highlands and Islands to lead a project to facilitate best practice in open education through the development of a peer support network, an online hub and awareness-raising activities which is intended to benefit the whole of the tertiary education sector in Scotland.
Higher education faces many challenges as more and more is expected from it by its many stakeholders. One of the most important are the students themselves, who look to their degree to give them the best start in their careers or to change their career trajectories altogether. Their expectations are high and that sets the bar for the quality of educational experience. The university sector in Scotland is immensely proud, as the student satisfaction survey shows, that it has the confidence of its students.
• Alastair Sim is director of Universities Scotland www.universities-scotland.ac.uk