Inside Track - Professor Tom Ward: Better, not bigger

Support for those grappling with the ‘complexity agenda’


This time last year I wrote an Inside Track column entitled ‘Is more always better?’.

This was aimed at continuing a conversation about the issues arising from the complexity of our offer. As I write this, I am returning from a Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) conference where colleagues from Nottingham were outlining the challenge they face in planning for subject level TEF across 360 programmes. We have several hundred more. In this column I want to follow up on some of these questions, update you about some of the ways we want to support people grappling with this, and address some of the anxieties being thrown up. Firstly though, I’d like to briefly update everyone on some changes inside the Student Education Service.

Changes inside the Student Education Service

  1. The Quality Assurance Team, led by Jenny Lyon, has moved across from Student Operations to Student Opportunity. This internal change will not influence how most people interact with the team, but we hope it will facilitate interaction between the curriculum and programme approval processes with careers, placements, and the wider student experience.
  2. Student Support, led by Chris Warrington, has moved across in the other direction. This reflects in part the growing complexity relating to the needs of students, and the intention to more clearly align operational processes relating to student education and the range of ways in which we support students, both through our day to day interactions and via our specialist services (Student Counselling & Wellbeing and Disability Services.
  3. As many of you will know, David Gardner retired this year. I am delighted that Isobel Whitehouse has been appointed to the Head of Learning Enhancement role. Izzy takes the lead on educational enhancement and on degree apprenticeships, and is a very welcome addition to the senior team in Student Opportunity.
  4. Recruitment for two senior appointments is underway this autumn: the Director of Student Opportunity and the Director of the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence. I am very grateful to the Heads in Student Opportunity, and to Kelvin Tapley as interim LITE Director, who have stepped up to help us keep running during these two vacancies.

Progress in tackling the ‘complexity agenda’

The objective of what in shorthand is called the ‘complexity agenda’ is to deliver quality research-based education in a sustainable way, and to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student community. Sustainable means many things – sustainable in workloads; delivery methods compatible with the ‘value for money’ push from the Office for Students; possible to timetable; possible to examine; not raising CMA risk; leaving us with headroom for innovation; environmentally sustainable.

The conversations and thinking required are clearly happening in many places. Almost every planning and budget (IPE) submission talked about this, but all too often alongside suggested new programmes. We need to all get used to routinely managing our portfolio – and managing a portfolio means testing and pruning as well as creating and planting.

Some excellent work has started. In the Faculty of Biological Sciences, a creative rationalisation has produced some new opportunities for teaching that exploits synergies across schools, and an innovative approach to ‘advanced topic’ modules has allowed the curriculum to remain fresh within a simpler template. The School of Languages, Cultures, and Societies has embarked on finding clever ways to manage an inherently complex offering. The headline figure of programmes in the prospectus has started to fall, which eventually feeds into more coherent marketing narratives.

These are two great examples of some of the work going on in this area, but much remains to be done before we can honestly say we have an efficient, actively managed, portfolio.

The wider environment has also become much more challenging. Over the last year, we have seen a relentless attack on the value of higher education, the post-18 funding review has been launched, the Office for National Statistics has changed the way student loans are treated in the public finances, and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts from March 2018 make a recession as likely as 3% growth for the next few years – plenty to think about without even mentioning the B word. This wider context makes it all the more pressing that we use our collective wisdom to ensure that effort and spend is directed, as effectively as possible, to deliver high quality education.

Three things that can help us

I want to discuss three things that can help us to maintain progress on the complexity agenda.

First, we have used strategic funding to launch a programme for colleagues on ‘Evidencing and sustaining the Leeds Education Offer’. It is aimed at helping equip schools and faculties with the data and the tools to manage their own portfolio effectively, maintain the momentum on educational enhancement, and supporting schools in assembling the evidence needed for likely future TEF directions. James Pickering (Medicine & Health) and Imogen Sammon (Strategy & Planning) will be leading on this, and they’ll be knocking on doors and working with DSEs, FESMs, Service leads, and Faculty Pro-Deans over the next two years.

Second, we have a sector leading Digital Education Service, and have made significant investments in the digital infrastructure needed for blended and online learning. Part of the solution to a complex set of problems (the fact that the workplace our students will enter will involve routine use of online CPD and a highly digital work environment; space and timetable constraints on campus; untapped potential for using digital educational technology to enhance the educational experience) is to make more use of online and blended learning. Moving from (for example) over a thousand modules badged as Discovery, to a more manageable portfolio with a core offer in each Discovery theme delivered online, would have an enormous impact. It would unlock timetable constraints, make good on the promise of our offer to students, and help both our students and ourselves learn how to take advantage of real blended learning.

Third, the education we offer is of high quality and that is reflected in strong demand. This autumn we admitted almost 7,000 new UK undergraduates, 47% with AAA or better at A-level. More than 1,000 students joined us through Access to Leeds, reflecting our strong commitment to widening participation. This should give us great confidence that bold simplification will not endanger recruitment.

Retaining our identity and academic judgement

Finally, I want to address directly some of the anxieties being expressed about the complexity agenda. It is a great thing that so much of our identity as academics is expressed through teaching, and the objective here is not to undermine that. Academic judgements and decisions need to be made by the subject specialists in each school, not by a metric-driven algorithm. Creative ways can be found to maintain the personal identity and research vigour in the curriculum by thinking of modules differently. That said, the problem is real: our metrics still show that we run one of the most complex curricular offerings in the Russell Group, and we still have not fully embraced the idea that contribution to education means making it better – not making it bigger.

Best wishes

Tom Ward

Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education

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