'What skills do students learn on Politics courses? An introduction to the workshop'

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/skills1x.htm

[Originally published in Hampsher-Monk, I & Stanyer, J (eds) (1996), Contemporary Political Studies vol 3, pp. 1631- 1637.]


The formation of the Political Studies Association (PSA) Teaching and Learning Specialist Group is a recognition of the growing desire within the profession to reflect on what we do as teachers and to seek to improve the way we help students to learn. The new 'Doing Politics' feature in Politics also provides a welcome space for the exploration of practical issues in teaching and research. The prospects for political scientists to contribute to educational research and debate within their own institutions and within the wide range of scholarly journals are good.

Such contributions will take a variety of forms. This piece is not a conventional conference paper. It seeks to put forward some ideas and arguments about the political and practical context in which discussions about teaching and learning strategies are taking place, and offers colleagues some points to reflect on before participating in the workshop at the PSA Conference.

The main resource used in the workshop will be the experience of those attending and the session will be structured to facilitate participation and interaction. The outcomes of this collective discussion will constitute a further resource that can be used in advancing reflection on issues of teaching and learning in general and the issue of skills in particular.

Government Policy

I am going to argue that over the last 10 years, government has attempted to change the nature and purpose of Higher Education and increase its own control over it. Government policy, as a whole, has multiplied the pressures on leaders of institutions, on staff and on students and changed significantly the everyday circumstances in which those engaged in Higher Education work and study. Justification for increased government intervention can be found in the 1985 Green Paper,The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s. 'There is continuing concern that higher education does not always respond sufficiently to changing economic needs. This may be due in part to disincentives to change within higher education, including over-dependence on public funding, and to failures in communication between employers and institutions.' (DES, 1985, p.6) The White Paper of 1987, Meeting the Challenge, makes the point more forcefully. 'Above all, there is an urgent need, in the interests of the nation as a whole, and therefore of universities, polytechnics and colleges themselves, for higher education to take increasing account of the economic requirements of the country.....The Government and its central funding agencies will do all they can to encourage and reward approaches by higher education institutions which bring them closer to the world of business.' (DES, 1987)

The 1988 Education Reform Act not only removed Polytechnics and Colleges of Higher Education from Local Authority control, but increased central government control over them and the Universities through the new funding arrangements managed by the Funding Councils. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act not only abolished the binary divide, but added the function of assessing teaching quality to the role of the unified Funding Council and opened up the possibility of government control over university teaching. (Tasker & Packham, 1994) Even before the latter piece of legislation, Michael Peters believed that 'we have witnessed a fundamental change in the political ideology of the management of higher education...underlying the ostensible concern for improved public sector accountability is an instrumental economic rationality exemplified in the now dominant belief in the use of market forces to induce greater efficiency.' (Peters, 1992) Rosalind Pritchard writing in 1994 says, ' Over the last five years the main expression of government power in British Higher Education has been the promotion of competition and the structuring of a higher education market. Undoubtedly, the most important positive effect of such competition has been to increase the intake of students at relatively modest cost to the Exchequer.' (Pritchard, 1994) In another article, Mary Tasker and David Packham argue for the need to acknowledge the different values of industry and Higher Education and cite Amy Gutmann who wrote that the role of the university lies in 'appreciating, rather than abolishing, the discrepancies between intellectual standards and market practices, since such discrepancies often signal a moral failure of the market rather than an intellectual failure of the university.'(A.Gutman, 1987 cited in Tasker & Packham, 1993, p.135).

While it is nothing new for the nature and purpose of Higher Education to be contested, there are elements in the contemporary assault on existing academic values and practices that are particularly insidious. The government has pursued its ideological and economic aims through its control of finance, not only withholding the capital and revenue necessary to maintain decent standards for working and studying in Higher Education, but also permitting a serious decline in staff salary levels and living standards and deliberately causing the impoverishment of students through the withdrawal of benefit entitlements, the reduction in grants, the introduction of loans and the abolition of the mature student allowance. Many staff feel undervalued, both politically and materially, and students suffer a whole range of practical and academic anxieties.

The Skills of Graduates

In any debate on the nature and purpose of Higher Education, the question of what attributes graduates should possess soon arises. The first two essential objectives of the Higher Education system as defined by the Robbins Report of 1963 - instuction in skills and the promotion of the general powers of the mind - are clearly about the skills and abilities that graduates ought to have. (The other two are the advancement of learning and the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.) Before the workshop, I will do more research to explore the meanings attached to the first two objectives at the time, because I believe they can still form an interesting basis for discussion. At the moment I read into them some distinction, perhaps even some tension, between the specific and the general.

The Joint Statement by the National Advisory Body (NAB) and the University Grants Committee (UGC) (NAB, 1984) makes another distinction,this time between societal and individual needs. 'Higher Education attempts to meet both the needs of the economy for highly skilled manpower and the aspirations of individuals for an educational experience which will provide for personal development and lead to a fulfilling and rewarding career.' ( NAB, 1984) While achieving the appropriate balance between these two sets of needs in practice might be the subject of controversy, there is nothing in the way the statement is phrased to imply that the needs of the economy should prevail over the needs of the individual.

In contrast, the 1985 Green Paper blames the disappointing economic performance of the UK since 1945 on the shortage of suitably qualified manpower, and blames this shortage mainly on the Higher Education system. It urges institutions to 'beware of anti-business snobbery' and states that 'the entrepreneurial spirit is essential for the maintenance and improvement of employment, prosperity and public services.' (DES, 1985 p.4) This line of argument, and the clear aim of making higher education endorse and encourage entrepreneurial values, led directly to the Enterprise in Higher Education (EHE) initiative launched by the Department of Employment in 1987.

Public money was made available, on a competitive basis, for institutions to implement projects that would increase the vocational skills of graduates and orient them positively to the values of enterprise. It was during a seminar organized by an Enterprise Unit that I first heard the distinction being clearly made between what students know and what students can do. We were being exhorted to direct our attention away from the former towards the latter and identify and foster as many work-related skills as we could.

Innovation in Learning and Teaching

My perception is that the visibility of institutional support and academic staff enthusiasm for innovation in teaching and learning that does exist, can be traced back to the EHE initiative with all its connotations of direct government intervention in the curriculum and the subsuming of academic values to the needs of the market economy. If this is the case, should not anyone who believes that the academy is more than a servant of the State stay well clear? And why should I be encouraging colleagues at the 1996 PSA Conference to collectively reflect on the skills that undergraduates learn on Politics programmes if skills are so narrowly defined? The answers can be found by exploring whether there is anything positive at all in recent government policies and the way they have affected institutions. Are there opportunities for the promotion of staff and student interests according to broader principles to be found among the threats to our well-being and our academic freedom?

In practice, the original aims of the EHE initiative were extended, perhaps even subverted by many of those involved. 'Ways were found to introduce modestly useful innovations which offered students some insights into the world of work without indoctrinating them with capitalist attitudes.' (Becher, 1994, p. 236) My experience was that EHE gave an unexpected, but welcome, legitimacy to various forms of 'student- centred learning', for example, group projects and negotiated placements with commercial and voluntary agencies. Such assignments widened the range of assessment forms experienced by students and enabled a wider range of skills to be developed and assessed. All the additional skills acquired increased the confidence of the students involved, whether or not the skills were vocationally relevant.

Advocacy of 'student-centred learning' in British Higher Education is not new. In a 1972 Guardian article, L.R.B.Elton suggests that students would learn more effectively if they were active participants in the learning process and he urges academics to review their approaches and methods. 'Teachers must learn to adopt an attitude of questioning and doubt to their teaching as they do habitually to their research.' (Elton, 1972). A Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) publication twenty years later, pointed out that current definitions of student- centred learning vary according to context but include notions of student choice, responsibility, independence and empowerment. (CNAA, 1992) However, such concepts do not always fill beleaguered academics with enthusiasm because it is not always made clear that this shift in perspective can involve the extension, not the undermining, of academics' existing expertise and that it can empower teachers as well as students. I will return to this point a little later.

The significant increases in productivity that have been forced on us by the increased rate of expansion of student numbers without commensurate expansion of resources, continue to be a major source of pressure. However, the statistics do also indicate that an enormous extension of opportunity has taken place. Five times as many students were undertaking undergraduate and postgraduate study in 1990 than in 1963. (Times Higher, 4 September 1992) In the four years to 1994 there were an additional 320,000 students in the system. (Times Higher, 28 July 1995). The percentage increase in student numbers between 1980 and 1990 was 43%. (Labour Research, August 1992) Between 1990 and 1994 it was almost 30%. While expansion of opportunity has not resulted in equality of opportunity, in that working class students, Caribbean and African men, and Asian women are still under-represented, participation rates of white and Black women and Asian men have improved significantly.

For those who welcome the greater social heterogeneity of students and find the diversity of their academic backgrounds (whether because of the variety of entrance qualifications or because of modularity) positive, the present circumstances provide an impetus for considering the learning process in terms of what students need to know and what they need to be able to do, and for including feedback from students themselves in these considerations. Those who feel neutral or negative about expanded numbers and increased diversity and those who prefer to focus on the subject rather than on the student, could also find it useful and rewarding to consider whether adjustments (other than extra time and effort) need to be made in order to maintain the effectiveness of their approaches and methods in these changed conditions.

The provisional findings of the Teaching and Learning Politics Survey (Stammers et al, 1995) indicate that many departments have not responded to the pressures caused by increased student numbers and worse staff-student ratios by changing teaching, learning or assessment methods in any significant way. It may be that existing methods have been successfully refined and adapted and that more noticeable innovation has only occurred in pockets across the University sector. Or it may be that the recent adoption of modular frameworks by many institutions and the increased use of hourly paid staff have served to reduce teaching costs in other ways. The survey did reveal however that 'within the discipline there does seem to be a commitment to developing students' range of generic skills beyond those typically regarded as central in H.E. Indeed our survey found that a whole range of skills (academic, personal and interpersonal) were being developed in students'. (Henney, 1995). This appears to indicate that the consideration of the outcomes of teaching and learning in terms of the skills that students need, may take place independently of substantial change in teaching and learning methods.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England's Teaching Quality Assessment (HEFCE TQA) exercise, and in particular the introduction of universal visiting from April 1995, is both another example of the government's attempt to control Higher Education and a possible opportunity to make space for useful discussion of teaching and learning. Public accountability for the spending of public money is a principle that must be defended, and some form of peer review is a sensible way of achieving both quality control and quality improvement. However, there is much to object to in the current methodology for the assessment of teaching by the HEFCE. The Secretary of State for Education explicitly instructed the funding Council 'to ensure that the outcomes of assessment visits are in a form which can be used to inform funding allocations' (HEFCE, Circular 39/94, p.5), and one of the three objectives adopted by HEFCE is 'to inform funding and reward excellence' (HEFCE, Circular 39/94, p.5). The use of the numerical graded profile provides an easy opportunity for HEFCE, or indeed institutions which have embraced the competitive ethos deliberately fostered by government, to construct league tables within each subject. The workload involved in organizing (or compiling) the documentation for the assessment visit, the strain of four days of observation and scrutiny, and the fear of occupying a low position in the league table are likely to outweigh the potential positive effects of collective discussion of subject aims and objectives and their relationship to curriculum design,teaching methods and student support. Those of us who want to maximize the long term benefits of the latter will need to be sensitive to the broader political context and its effects on staff morale.

Adrian Leftwich wrote in 1991 that 'the use of the audit and appraisal 'sticks' without the 'carrots' is bound, as far as teaching is concerned, to produce surly compliance and little striving for achievement or excellence.' (Leftwich, 1991, p.286). The 'carrot' he was seeking was funding for innovation in teaching methods in Politics and he found that neither government nor business cared to back up with money their stated support for innovation. I want to go further and argue that even if rewards such as funding, time, prizes or promotion were more widely available, their allocation would be on a competitive basis and would mainly increase the job satisfaction of those who received them. We need to find ways of bringing rewards in the form of job satisfaction to all of us.

I believe that it helps us to recognize that academics have been disgracefully exploited by government and that our unpaid labour has been used to mitigate the effects of underfunded expansion on the learning experience of students. One way that we can increase our job satisfaction despite such treatment, is to give systematic attention to issues of teaching and learning. Such attention can increase our professional confidence in that part of our job that takes up the majority of the working week in term-time, and in that part of our job where we interact with our most important 'customers'. Increased professional confidence not only increases our individual self-esteem but can help us collectively to resist further encroachment on academic freedom and autonomy.

Reflective Practice

The way we give systematic attention to teaching and learning is important. I am convinced that individual reflection on what we do in the classroom, on what we are hoping to achieve and the extent to which our aims are met by the approaches and methods we use, is the best starting point. There are number of recent articles that explain the personal and educational advantages of 'reflective practice'. (Taylor, 1994; Silcock,1994; Bright, 1995). I would advocate individual reflection also on the basis that none of us likes to be told that our approach to teaching is out-dated or that the methods we use are ineffective. We may reject the judgement, or we may accept it and seek a ready-made solution. In the latter case no real change has taken place and in both cases our feelings of professional confidence have been reduced. Once some individual reflection has been undertaken, we can gain further insights by reading the work of others (Gibbs, 1981; Raaheim et al, 1991; Gibbs & Habeshaw, 1988; Habeshaw et al, 1992; Brown & Knight, 1994), by discussing the issues with colleagues, by seeking student feedback and by participating in carefully selected staff development. I hope that the workshop aids both individual and collective reflection.


Becher, T. (1994) 'The State and the University Curriculum in Britain', European Journal of Education, 29/3.

Bright,B. (1995) 'What is 'Reflective Practice'?', Curriculum, 16/2.

Brown, S. & Knight, P. (1994) Assessing Learners in Higher Education, Kogan Page.

CNAA, (1992) 'Case studies in student-centred learning', CNAA Project Report 36.

DES, (1985) The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s, HMSO.

DES, (1987) Meeting the Challenge, HMSO.

Elton, L. (1992) 'Failing lectures', Guardian, 7 July.

Gibbs, G. (1981) Teaching Students to Learn: a Student-centred Approach, Open University Press.

Gibbs, G. & Habeshaw, T. (1988) 253 Ideas for your Teaching, Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Habeshaw, S., Gibbs, G. & Habeshaw, T. (1992) 53 Problems with Large Classes: Making the Best of a Bad Job, Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Gutman, A. (1987) Democratic Education, Princeton University Press, cited in M.Tasker & D. Packham, (1993)'Industry and Higher Education: a question of values', Studies in Higher Education, 18/2.

HEFCE, Circular 39/94.

Henney, J (1995) 'Teaching and Learning Politics', PSA News, Autumn.

Labour Research, (1992) August.

Leftwich, A. (1991) 'Pedagogy for the Depressed: the political economy of teaching development in British Universities', Studies in Higher Education, 16/3.

NAB, (1984) A Strategy for Higher Education in the late 1990s and Beyond.

Peters, M. (1992) 'Performance and Accountability in 'Post-industrial society':the crisis of British universities', Studies in Higher Education, 17/2.

Pritchard, R. (1994) 'Government Power in British Higher Education', Studies in Higher Education, 19/3.

Raaheim, K., Wankowski, J. & Radford, J (1991) Helping Students to Learn: Teaching, Counselling, Research, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Silcock, P. (1994) 'The Process of Reflective Teaching', British Journal of Educational Studies, 42/3.

Stammers, N., Dittmar, H. & Henney, J. (1995) 'Teaching and Learning Politics:a Survey of Change and Practices in UK Universities', Paper presented at PSA Conference.

Tasker, M. & Packham, D. (1994) 'Changing Cultures? Government Intervention in Higher Education 1987-93', British Journal of Educational Studies, 42/2.

Taylor, L. (1994) 'Reflecting on Teaching: the benefits of self-evaluation', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 19/2.

Times Higher, (1992) 4 September.

Times Higher, (1995) 28 July.

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