Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Teaching - Supporting students

When a university is famous, it is usually so as a result of its internationally renowned research. However, for most universities, including my own, the main business necessarily has to do with the teaching we do, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, since it is through this core activity that we receive the bulk of our funding. Hence it is vital that we take teaching seriously and do it well. This is important for existing students, so they get good degrees and leave us with strongly positive feelings about the institution where they have studied; such outcomes also put our graduates in a good position to follow interesting careers. Moreover, gaining a reputation for good, caring teaching can also help us recruit future students, esesential for the continuing vitality of the university.

So what does it mean to be a good teaching institution, and to take care of our students?

Nowadays it seems to mean a great deal. First and foremost, we need good degree programmes, well taught and presented in a lively, interesting way. This, we have in abundance, I think, though of course what we teach is constantly under review and being updated. Then, as an institution, we need to show that we offer a good physical teaching environment, well resourced and with high quality facilities, and at least as good as our main competing institutions. This, too, my own university does pretty well these days. And as an added extra, we even have a lovely campus which is beautifully maintained, and some very good quality residences for those students who live on the campus. So far so good.

The last aspect of good teaching is probably the hardest, and has to do with our diverse personal contacts with students, whether these involve personal discussions about essays or larger projects; providing prompt and helpful feedback on students' academic work; giving advice about academic, personal and financial matters; responding to questions in lectures; responding to student e-mails (the main means of communication now); being available at predictable times for meetings with students; and probably others that don't come to mind as I write this. This field is hard to manage because the types of contact are so varied, and because it can involve such a big time commitment both from academics and support staff. But in terms of the sort of impression that our students get of our commitment to teaching, I suspect it is at least as important as the formal teaching that we do, possibly more so (especially for the more advanced students who tend to need more contact).

Luckily, I think my university does an amazingly good job in fostering good practice when it comes to our contacts with students. In some areas there are formal policies in place - either at university or School level, but in other areas we simply rely on the professionalism of staff at all levels to provide the responses and support that students need. My impression is that this part of our university system works really well - it stands up well both in national and international comparison, in my experience.

Taking all this together, we have a fairly complicated but effective system for delivering the 'teaching function' in my university, and I hope that we can hold onto it once public spending cuts start to feed through to the university sector in a serious way. Fingers crossed.

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