Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities

What is the conundrum concerning teaching at universities in Britain?

Put simply, it is how to enhance, professionalise and make more consistent the quality of teaching at British universities for undergraduates and postgraduates, without burdening universities with a heavy bureaucracy which will take excessive time and money, and run the risk of resulting in drab, formulaic teaching.


Why is change necessary? Because while much teaching is excellent, much could be improved; because universities are higher education, and education doesn’t just happen—it needs serious thought and work; because too little is known about where the excellent and poor teaching is in universities today, and the quality of leadership from the top on teaching in universities is inconsistent; because the recent focus on research has tipped the balance, always precarious, from teaching to research; because solving the conundrum is not difficult if pursued the right way, as laid out here.

I am passionate about teaching, which is both an art and a science. I had some outstanding teaching at school and at Oxford, and some that was unacceptably poor because some teachers didn’t know what they were doing and no one held them to account. After my doctorate at LSE, and some time as a research fellow there, I trained as a schoolteacher and was awarded the Teacher of the Year prize at King’s College, London.

I was drawn to the subject of this booklet because of my own career spanning both schools and higher education. At both levels, I have very deliberately put the interests of the students first, which is key to solving the conundrum, and I believe that the best teachers in both schools and universities do exactly the same. I worked in schools for thirty years—for nearly twenty years as head of two very fast improving institutions, Brighton College and Wellington College. Both are independent schools, though with considerable involvement in the state sector. For most of the time I was a head, I inspected schools for the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which used proven teachers practising in schools to inspect other institutions. I have spent much of the last thirty years working with university academics as editor of their work, both for journals and books, and as founder and first director of a research institution now at King’s College, London—The Institute of Contemporary British History. I am now one of a very small number who have crossed over from running schools to heading a university, a small one admittedly, albeit the university which came top in the 2015/16 table on teaching quality produced by The Times and The Sunday Times. I believe that much teaching in British universities of all varieties is excellent, and that the academics I know mostly share a passion to teach their students as well as they can. Many are frustrated at the lack of priority given to teaching. There is considerable scope for greater professionalisation, sharing and learning within higher education, and between HE and schools.

The material presented here draws upon detailed questionnaires that I sent to twenty-five senior academics, a small number of whom wished to remain anonymous, the rest of whom are cited in the notes which follow. The booklet also draws upon the views of heads of sixth forms in schools, some one hundred of whom returned a questionnaire, sixty per cent of whom were from state schools, seventy per cent of whom said they were in contact with their former students after they joined university, and twelve per cent of whom said that they were in regular contact. It draws also on my own experience as a former head, sending several thousand students on to HE, and finally as a parent of three children who went through five British universities.


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