My Week - 12 January 2015 - Reflections on the Student Education Conference

The annual Leeds Student Education Conference took place on Thursday afternoon and Friday of last week.

It’s always an inspiring and lively event, and this year was no exception, the quality and range of papers and presentations and the numbers attending amply justifying the decision to extend the conference this year by half a day.  Few other universities, and none among our peer group, can offer anything comparable – testimony, as the Vice-Chancellor pointed out in his opening remarks, to the strength of our commitment to excellence in education.

The Leeds Curriculum underpins and epitomises that commitment. This year’s level one students are the first cohort to experience it in full, and one of the conference highlights was its official launch on Thursday evening – including student contributions from a level three Chemist, one of many students who have contributed to its design, to a level one Sociology student thrilled by her discovery module in Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (PRHS).

At the launch, we introduced the snazzy new brochure which succinctly summarises the Leeds Curriculum for external audiences, including prospective students, in a single-fold A5 format. (The brochure is also available online). We’re not anywhere near as good as we should be at telling the outside world about our strengths. From now on, I hope a few copies of the Leeds Curriculum brochure will be a must in the luggage of any colleague visiting other institutions or taking part in alumni gatherings, particularly internationally.

As in previous years, attendance at the conference reflected our holistic approach to education, with lots of input from Student Education Service as well as academic colleagues. But I confess I’m always a bit disappointed by how many academic colleagues don’t attend. Those who do get an invaluable opportunity not just to share their own good practice or to get great ideas from others, but to hear important messages in the plenary sessions from important external partners, whose perspectives all of us engaged with students need to understand.

The theme of this year’s conference, ‘The Leeds Graduate: the distinctive journey’, signalled our responsibility to support students through the crucial transitions in their education – from school or college into university, and ultimately into employment. Accordingly, the conference was framed by two excellent panels – the first made up of head teachers from a range of local schools; the second of employers from different sectors. They included Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council, representatives from the voluntary sector, TeachFirst, and the Association of Graduate Recruiters, and this year’s keynote speaker, computing science alumnus Dan Crow. A former innovator in Silicon Valley who has worked for both Apple and Google, and now a very successful veteran of digital start-ups, Dan is a member of the School of Computing’s Industrial Advisory Board and a shining example not just of the quality of Leeds graduates but of how vital it is that we work with our alumni to prepare our students for employment.

It was gratifying that the messages from both panels reinforced the principles which underpin the Leeds Curriculum and our commitment to co-curricular learning through LeedsforLife. Gratifying – though not really surprising, given the in-depth consultation with teachers and employers which went into its making. In its balance of specialist, research-based learning with a broadening of students’ intellectual horizons through the Discovery Themes, the Leeds Curriculum fulfils the aspirations of imaginative teachers and their students; it also answers the needs of prospective employers who, above all, want graduates who are passionate, who can think for themselves as well as work collaboratively, and who are not fazed by the unexpected.

But it was also salutary to be reminded how very different – and becoming ever more different – the world of work often is from a student’s university experience. This was the message from all the employers on the panel, and we need to think a lot harder about how we use the comparatively safe environment of a student’s degree programme to prepare them for the unexpected – even for failure, from which you learn a lot more than from success.

In Dan Crow’s phrase, our students – the thought leaders of the future – need a ‘growth mind-set’. Our responsibility is to use the Leeds Curriculum to ensure they develop just that.

Professor Vivien Jones, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Student Education

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