Teaching and Learning after Dearing

Penny Welch

School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB

Tel: 01902 322466 Fax: 01902 322739 Email: P.Welch@wlv.ac.uk

URL: http://pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~le1810/dear1x.htm

[Originally published in PSA News, October 1997]

The Dearing Report and the Government

The Dearing Report (National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997) is positive about the achievements of higher education in the UK, recognizes that funding for each student has fallen by 40% in the last twenty years, acknowledges that many staff are underpaid and feel undervalued, and warns that the additional cuts in public expenditure planned for 1998-2000 will be damaging. In the light of government unwillingness to spend more public money on HE, the report proposes that full time undergraduates pay tuition fees of 1000 a year, funded by income-contingent loans.

If the government had accepted these proposals, current provision would have been protected, although at the cost of lost opportunities for some potential students, particularly those in older age groups or from working class backgrounds. We could predict that students would 'be more demanding of institutions if they are contributing' (S, 111) and that the academic marketplace would deliver the foregrounding of the teaching function advocated by Dearing, including the professional Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (R, 14).

The government's response, however, has resulted in confusion and uncertainty. Means tested tuition fees, abolition of maintenance grants, the clawing back of tuition fee income to pay for setting up the new student loan system (Higher, 22/8/97) and more central control over the allocation of funds (Higher, 29/8/97) could mean that a much less socially diverse student population will pay more for less, that demands on teaching staff will increase and the threat of redundancies will remain. Such a climate would not be conducive to the enhancement of teaching and learning and the government needs to be so warned.

The Dearing Report and Higher Education Teachers

This does not mean, however, that we can ignore issues and trends identified within the submissions to Dearing and in the final report. Many of them impact already on our practice as teachers and need addressing whether or not students pay and whether or not more money is available. We need to respond by considered changes and planned innovations that are affordable and congruent with our academic and pedagogical values.

Greater use of communication and information technology

(Summary, 65-68, & Recommendation 41)

Claims that technology can save money and time are often exaggerated, given that expectations about performance rise with technological advance. But e-mail, video conferencing, the World Wide Web, electronic journals, CD roms, databases etc do offer quite exciting opportunities for more extensive and, in some cases, quicker and easier information retrieval, international contacts, distance teaching and communication with students. One current problem is that not all staff and students have equal access to the technology or appropriate training, and we need to press institutions to provide this.

The employability of graduates

(Summary, 38-40)

The employment prospects of graduates depend on more than the skills and attributes they possess, but, nevertheless, departments could do more to encourage students to build up a portfolio of vocationally-relevant skills, could make more contacts with appropriate employers, and offer modules based on projects with outside agencies.

Greater accountability of HE to government, employers, students and the public

(Summary, 3 & 41)

If accountability is defined as compliance with over-bureaucratic and time consuming models of quality assurance, it will not be seen as an integral part of professional practice. If it is defined as maximum clarity and transparency in all our dealings with students, then explicit statements about the expected outcomes of programmes (Recommendation 21) and effective systems to deal with student complaints (Recommendation 60) will be easier to achieve. Greater openness about assessment criteria and more positive use of student feedback could aid both accountability and student learning too.

Increased participation and wider access

(Summary, 4,12,13,15,29,30 & Recommendations 1-7 & 76)

Systematic underfunding and undervaluing of staff efforts have meant that expansion of student numbers and greater diversity in the academic background, modes of study and social characteristics of students have often felt like additional problems to be solved rather than as positive developments. Dearing advocates specific funding policies that facilitate greater participation by working class students, students from all ethnic minority groups, students with disabilities and unemployed part time students. If adopted, they could mitigate the effect of full time fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant a little. More effective implementation of institutional equal opportunities policies, wider contacts with schools, colleges and community groups, a curriculum that reflects social diversity and an approach to teaching and pastoral care that recognizes the differing circumstances of students' lives are even more vital from now on.

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