We have now reached the end of another academic year, my first full academic year at Swansea. On Monday I had the privilege of taking part in the first graduation ceremonies to take place in the new Great Hall on the Bay Campus. The sun was out, the crowds of grandaunts and their parents gathered on the square in front of the hall to enjoy the sun. The hall was full and the organ rang out. It was a wonderful event and all the feedback that I have received has said how much parents, students, academics and even senior management were enjoying themselves, a very fitting end to the year.
This is also a very good time to begin a new strand on the SALT blog pages, the PVC Blog. This will offer a space where I can keep colleagues up to date with activities and thinking within the wider Higher Education learning and teaching arena, including the TEF and other important national and Wales-specific developments. It will also offer me the opportunity to share some good practice from around the University and to muse on issues related to learning and teaching that I think might be of interest to colleagues.
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of handing out the awards for Excellence in Teaching and Student Support at the end of another great SALT conference. Like the graduations, this was a celebration of hard work, creativity, co-operation and excellence. I also had the opportunity to address the hundred or so academics and professional services staff who had gathered to be part of the celebration. In that talk I looked forward to the graduations and asked, essentially, what kind of student did Swansea University want to see completing a degree, what kind of graduates did we want to produce, what, in the language of learning and teaching, are the learning outcomes of our programmes across the University?
At the core of any degree is, of course, the knowledge and skills that are central to the discipline being studied. We can never forget that the key learning outcomes must always be those of the discipline, although how that is understood may vary from university to university and even within departments. Some of this will also be determined by professional bodies and much should always be informed by employers who work in the areas covered by the discipline. While recognising the centrality of the disciplinary knowledge and skills there are still many other elements that need to be part of our learning outcomes for undergraduates, almost irrespective of the subject being studied.
My first learning outcome goes back to the employer, and to employability although in a slightly obtuse way. If I were to look at my own contemporaries, family and friends, then very few of them have had a ‘conventional’ career, whatever we might think that to be. Most have had a series of jobs, time away from work for whatever reason, time taken part time in work, and time devoted to voluntary and other low income, or non-income, activities that they personally find to be rewarding. We cannot expect our students to walk into a ‘job for life’; such opportunities are very rare in the contemporary world. Many people also travel widely, try out different things, make money in one space and then move on to take up less well paid opportunities elsewhere, and so on. There are no specific, disciplinary, skills that can prepare students for this. However, if we were to ask employers what they are looking for primarily within potential employees most will also ignore that traditional ‘skills’. The kinds of words employers are using are ‘flexibility’, ‘resilience’, ‘confidence’. These are exactly the kind of attributes that are needed by those who move from job to job and carve out a career that is unique to them. Can such attributes be ‘taught’? Perhaps not in a classroom or through a series of modules or lectures. They can, however, be ‘instilled’ or ‘encouraged’ and I will come back to this below.
The second learning outcome is in two parts, and perhaps relates most specifically to my own background in the humanities and social sciences. These are also, however, attributes that I would expect any scientist, engineer, medic or mathematician to espouse. The first of these is ‘critical thinking’. The Brexit outcome came as a shock to many within the academic world for many different reasons. However, the blatant attack on ‘experts’ and the lack of what many of us might describe as ‘reasoned arguments’ (on both sides) must raise warning bells. Should not a student who leaves any University be able to present a case in a convincing and rational way, ideally with creativity and panache, but ultimately through critical thought? Should not a student also be able to provide a reasoned and critical perspective on any position, showing the ability to understand the core of the argument and demonstrating an ability to dissect and challenge any position, however dogmatic? Universities long ago stopped teaching ‘rhetoric’, perhaps, post-Brexit, this is something that we might want to reintroduce, if not in its traditional form, then at least in a form that enables students to communicate ideas effectively through whatever medium they choose, including twitter.
The other element of this learning outcome, that also derives in part from a reaction to the Brexit debate, is what I might call ‘cultural learning’. Personally I would want to introduce all students to levels of art and culture from across the world, to open their minds to creative possibilities, but that is not what I am talking about here. I do remember sitting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and watching tourists going from picture to picture snapping their mobile phone, capturing the image, and moving on. None appeared to stop long enough to allow the art work in front of them to touch them, or to challenge them. Everything was mediated through the technology. It is not just the art of MOMA that should ‘touch’ us in this way. Any human activity should be appreciated, should question or challenge us, and we should seek to understand it. This may be different cultures, in the anthropological sense, or people different from ourselves. It may be seen in sport and the appreciation of skill, or performance, or through whatever creative medium a student chooses to engage. Some of the best social criticism available today exists in rap and other radical music genres. How do we provide students with the tools necessary to engage with such cultural activities, or even to express their own culture through such media?
The third learning outcome, that in some ways combines the two I have already mentioned, is what I would call simply ‘experience’. A recent radio programme noted that younger people today do not tend to purchase or consume things; rather they go for experiences. Whether this is a festival, a night out with friends or a cup cake tour of the West End. If this is true then what is it that we mean when we talk about the consumerisation of education? Are students mounting up large debts for a ‘product’, the 1st class degree or a 2:1 in whatever subject they are studying. Much of the commentary seems to assume this is where we are heading. Is it not possible, however, to suggest that students are prepared to pay so much at the beginning of their lives for an experience that, while certainly supporting them for the rest of their lives, is also worthwhile in and of itself. I asked earlier how we might instill characteristics such as resilience and confidence. I could equally ask the best way to provide cultural learning. The answer in both cases is much the same, it is through profound, life changing, experiences. Whether this comes through volunteering, work placements, international exchange, or, perhaps, occasionally, through the learning and teaching we offer at Swansea, it is the nature of the experience that often teaches the student more and prepares them better for life than anything we might teach within our programmes.
What we must ask, therefore, as we look out across the graduates leaving the hall after their graduation ceremonies, is what is it that Swansea has given these young people over the three, four or more years that they have been with us, what is it that we would want to see as the Swansea Graduate?