The single biggest driver of change in the UK’s higher education space has been the progressive “marketisation” of the sector.
This started kicking in during the 2006/7 academic year when universities in England were allowed to start charging variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 per year for the first time. The cap was then controversially raised to £9,000 per year six years later, which only exacerbated the situation. Dr Robert Stoneman, higher education analyst for market researchers Kable, explains:
At that time, there was a massive growth in expectations around what students were getting in return for paying fees. So they won’t just do what they’re told any more – they want to feel ownership of their education and that they’re getting value for money.
But the problem from the universities’ point of view has been that, even as student tuition fees have risen, their funding from government has been cut. This scenario has led to a big focus on doing more with less, which in turn has resulted in increasing levels of digitisation in a bid to reduce expenditure, while enhancing the learning experience at the same time.
At the back end, for example, many higher education institutions have consolidated suppliers and opted for single, integrated, more latterly cloud-based systems that are cheaper and easier to manage than diverse best-of-breed applications.
At the front end, meanwhile, it is all about enabling centralised virtual learning environments (VLEs) to support mobile, flexible and social working. The aim here is to make the learning experience as simple as possible for students to negotiate using their own mobile devices (as opposed to expensive in-house PCs), while also enhancing educational standards - particularly in light of the forthcoming Teaching Excellence Framework, which is intended to boost teaching quality and is likely to be linked to future funding. Stoneman points out:
There have been a lot of cuts and so a lot of teaching has been pushed out to post-doctorates with limited experience. This means you have to make access to high quality materials as simple as possible. So the number of organisations offering mobile and flexible learning is only set to increase – the market is very competitive and any organisations that don’t embrace it will fall behind.
Examples of this kind of approach include capturing lectures in good quality audio and/or video and loading into a VLE so that it can be accessed by students who were unable to attend that day, perhaps due to illness. Interestingly though, Stoneman believes that the growing use of such technology could lead to even greater change in the fabric of higher education.
This type of technology could well promote more remote learning as it improves the student experience if they live some distance away. The growth in ebooks and all things digitised also means there are fewer requirements for students to go into university each day in order to get hold of resources as it’s all available via the internet and can be accessed from home.
But Stoneman also cites social learning, which involves encouraging students to work collaboratively online outside of the lecture hall or seminar room environment, as another increasingly popular means of encouraging student-centred activity. One organisation that has been at the forefront of this approach is Cardiff University. Sheila Amici-Dargan, senior lecturer and year one lead at the institution’s School of Biosciences, explains the rationale:
Educational literature has shown that collaborative learning in groups is more effective than lone study, although other research shows that most students prefer to learn alone or in pairs. But the idea with collaborative learning is that if people work together, some will be better in certain areas than others and so everyone will learn different things from each other.
A particular issue for Cardiff’s School of Biosciences, meanwhile, is that it has very large class sizes – each year’s intake comprises 450 students and the average lecture accommodates 250. As a result, says Amici-Dargan:
We have very few opportunities for smaller groups, but the problem is that, due to a lack of staff, it’s very didactic and that doesn’t really work for deeper learning. Students are paying more but it’s not coming to us and we’re being asked to do more with less, which is why we’re particularly interested in fostering collaborative learning, a lot of which is self-directed.
The university first introduced its collaborative learning initiative in 2015 for first year biosciences students who all take the same six core modules. Amici-Dargan received £10,000 in funding from the Physiological Society to set up and run a study and will write a best practice guide based on her experiences.
As part of the project, a dedicated collaboration environment was set up based on Learnium’s social learning platform. The aim was to create online communities to help students make contact with each other, discuss specific topics related to their studies, ask questions of each other and share resources.
But an advantage of using a dedicated platform rather than a social network such as Facebook was that the university was able to capture feedback to support the students and “work with them as partners to improve the curriculum”, says Amici-Dargan.
Getting the balance right
Despite assumptions that this young, digital-savvy generation would take to social platform without much intervention though, she quickly found the opposite was true. She explains:
It was initially really hard to get them engaged and do stuff online. So we got them to write reflective logs and asked why they weren’t using the communities. A lot said they were nervous, didn’t know what to post, didn’t want to ask stupid questions and simply weren’t sure of their purpose. So it was challenging, but everything’s working better this year as we were able to address those fears and worries from the outset with the new intake.
Another finding has been how important it is to get the right balance between making collaborative learning student- as opposed to academic-led. Amici-Dargan explains:
The trick is to have the academic facilitate and guide the project and the students run it. But it’s also important to build up rapport and ensure they’re comfortable about collaborating. Students will only engage if they see it as beneficial to them, but it’s also necessary to build confidence that it’s a non-judgemental forum. So you have to be careful about how much involvement academics have. The more involvement, the less effective it will be as students see it as being more about core teaching rather than broadening their own knowledge.
The hope is that the students who have already benefitted from using existing online communities will start new ones as they move through the university, encouraging others to do so in the process. But Amici-Dargan is also exploring how they might be encouraged to work on a more cross-community basis, following three pilot projects also undertaken last year with two universities in Bristol as well as the Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Possibilities here include setting up wider communities of practice or affiliating them to learned societies such as the Physiology Society in order to broaden students’ access to knowledge.
And certainly Kable’s Stoneman believes that finding ways for geographically-dispersed campuses to work together could become increasingly important over the years ahead. The issue is that the number of UK students in local universities is not growing and is, in fact, likely to decline. At the same time, however, Brexit could result in the number of European students, who pay proportionately high fees, plummeting.
As a result, a number of universities are exploring whether to set up campuses either in Europe or further afield – pioneer Nottingham, for example, has already established two in the Middle East as well as one in China and one in Malaysia. Stoneman says:
In future, universities are really going to have to fight for students. They’re also going to have to manage the whole student/customer relations element, which includes being an alumni, in order to ensure they get the best experience - and mobile, social and flexible working will be key to that.
Technology is not only changing the face of higher education in the UK in the shape of increasing levels of mobile, flexible and social learning. It could also end up being its saviour.