I hope it will be possible to link to the presenter’s sides from this conference. This means I can focus on five key points:

1. The idea of institutional research (IR). The HEIR (Higher Education Institutional Research) Network co-organised the day. They define it as:
The use of research and enquiry to provide evidence to inform policy, practice and management at all levels within higher education. This includes management information to inform policy and strategy, evaluation and pedagogic research to inform learning and teaching, and using data gathered for different purposes to better understand and manage activities within institutions, including the student experience.

This strikes me as being very similar to what the Open University refers to as ‘scholarship’ – especially where the focus is on pedagogy or the student experience. Perhaps IR is more explicit than scholarship about the intention of challenging and changing institutional policy.

2. How enhancing teaching, learning and assessment can have a significant impact on ‘graduate attributes’. Glasgow University used a team of ‘student enquirers’ to interview staff and students. Striking differences emerged. Staff thought that the most important aspect of attending university was the social (perhaps they were thinking about their own misspent student days). In contrast students thought that being employable was the most important. The academic side was the least important for students.

This links to one of my later points about how universities see students. Clearly in the Open University there might be different perceptions – I don’t think we would rate the social aspect so highly. Nevertheless it highlights the issues of what assumptions are made about students.

3. Similar disparities were also evident when staff and students were asked about the most important graduate attributes. Staff placed ‘independent and critical thinking’ at the top of their list. For students this was at the bottom. Their top attribute was ‘communication’. Staff placed ‘team working’ at the bottom of their list when for students this was fourth (after communication, confidence and motivation). Neither students nor staff placed ‘research skills’ highly.

4. It was very uncertain whether current learning outcomes fostered graduate attributes, whether assessment measured these attributes and whether current teaching and learning developed them.

This suggests a key issue – how what we do with students develops (or not) the attributes that are viewed as being important.

5. One workshop was run by NUS Student Feedback Officers. This looked at the various sources of data (such as the National Student Satisfaction survey) could be used to capture the student voice in order to feed it back into policy.

Not only does this remind us again of the salience of student voice or student experience, it is also a reminder of the value of it. In the Open University we have to ‘imagine’ who the students are that will be reading our course materials and we have to imagine what they will bring to it and what sense they will make of it.

A clearer and more inclusive picture of these voices can only deepen our understanding. In this scenario the diversity of voices becomes a resource and creates opportunities – rather than being viewed as a ‘problem’ of what so-called ‘widening participation’ students lack.

I’m going to cheat and add a 6th point – but only briefly as I will return to it in the near future. The final workshop outlined how Glasgow Caledonian University was using the work of Liz Thomas to promote a transformative approach to widening participation rather than an academic or utilitarian approach. This applies some of the writing Liz has developed over a number of years – see for example:

Jones, R. and Thomas, L. (2005) ‘the 2003 UK Government Higher Education White Paper: a critical assessment of its implications for the access and widening participation agenda’, Journal of Education Policy, 20, 5, 615-630.

Definitely a topic for a future blog.

Dr. Jonathan Hughes
Lecturer, CIC

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