Letting the Nightingale Sing.

Over the last week my life, and that of three other colleagues, has been dominated by writing and rewriting the TEF submission. I am very grateful to my colleagues, and to the many other people across the University, who have put so much time and effort into this process. It has proved to be a really stimulating and thought provoking process. Not only has it highlighted all the really good things that are going on within education across the University but it has also allowed us to reflect critically on what needs to change and where we want to go next.

This has fitted in very well with the continuing work on STEP4Excellence and Go Beyond and on Wednesday afternoon we had a joint programme board for these two projects. This was a chance to catch up with where the various different work streams are up to and to look forward to what we have to achieve over the coming few months as we move towards a point where we can begin the process of implementation. For me this meeting clarified and confirmed that we are actually on the right track and that when everything does, eventually, come together it will be a real boost to the whole University.

One of the things that struck me particularly clearly this week was triggered not by the TEF or by internal University meetings, but by an article in last week’s THE. The Vice Chancellor of Sheffield, Keith Burnett, contributed a comment piece in which he compared the current state of the Higher Education Sector to the old Russian folktale of the Emperor and the Nightingale. In this tale the Emperor’s courtiers are captivated by a mechanical nightingale that has been given to the Emperor, and they go out of their way to praise its beauty and its song. The Emperor, however, has a real nightingale within a cage and knows the difference between the mechanical song of the toy and the natural beauty of the real bird. Eventually he asks what it is that the nightingale wants above everything else in the world, and she replies ‘freedom’, so the Emperor releases her to continue her song in the wild woods beyond the palace.

Burnett claims that many University leaders, and many others in our society, have become like the courtiers, captivated by the mechanical elements of HE: quality processes, regulations, the gathering of metrics and league tables, and we have forgotten how to listen to the real nightingale. We need to find ways, Burnett suggests, by which we can once again give our academics and our students the freedom to sing.

There is an important lesson within this little story and one that we are trying to learn as we approach the possibility of curriculum reform through Go Beyond. We need to find a way of loosening the regulations and the various processes involved in curriculum approval and review in order to allow each subject area within the University to develop the kind of curriculum that they wish to offer to their students.

So many times, both at Swansea and elsewhere, I have heard colleagues state, as they have tried to make changes and to loosen the structures of their programmes, that they cannot do – whatever it might be – because the regulations do not allow it; an academic version of ‘computer says ‘no’’. What we often fail to realise, of course, is that it is us, the various members of the University, who create the regulations in the first place, and that if we want to change them then, of course, we can.

This is not to say that anything should be allowed. Regulations and processes have their purpose, to ensure equity, to protect both students and staff, to provide reassurance on quality and standards and to allow interchangeability between programmes. We need to have a framework of some kind in order to assure ourselves, and prospective students, that we are offering a quality product. However, we often go overboard, and construct regulations for the sake of it, or impose frameworks that are too rigid and that stifle creativity and imagination in teaching and learning. There is not one way of doing things that must be imposed on all. There have to be ways of constructing process, regulations and frameworks that enable and facilitate, rather than constraining and forbidding. This is what we will be aiming to achieve alongside the more obvious elements of the Go Beyond process.

Having said that I have noted in recent months that I am already getting emails from staff saying ‘I would love to do x or y in my module, but don’t know if I can’, or ‘if only the regs. allowed it, I would want to try …’. There are points of creativity and experimentation emerging. As we prepare the TEF we are also becoming aware of large areas of really good practice that are pushing at the very edges of our current structures and systems, either intentionally or simply through the enthusiasm of staff to provide the very best for their students.

I want to be able to facilitate this more widely across the institution. I want to gently prise open the bars of the cage, loosen the mechanism of the mechanical birds, and I want to begin to hear many nightingales begin to sing out across our campuses. Is that perhaps too much to ask?

One Comment

  1. Of course striking the right balance between Quality Assurance, clear regulations and flexibility to deliver excellence is key (and the biggest challenge!). To loose and you risk delivering a programme and produce which may not deliver excellence. To tight and you may experience the same issues by stifling innovation and creativity. Front loading quality and excellence, working together with subject areas and creating a culture where quality assurance goes hand in hand with core business practice will hopefully deliver that balance. Work continues!

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