Reflecting on Excellence

As I listened to the news earlier this week one of the headlines was quoting Jo Johnson as saying that Universities must wipe out mediocre teaching and drive up student engagement. The less well informed media claimed that he had laid out new plans to cut the fees of universities that failed their students. What he said, however, was nothing more than what has already been said a number of times over the last six months. It is only the wider context of clearing that provides the opportunity for such comments once again to hit the headlines.

Sitting behind the whole pronouncement is this perception of ‘mediocre teaching’ and a ‘lack of student engagement’ while NSS scores continue to demonstrate that across the sector as a whole student satisfaction with both teaching and student engagement remains as high as ever, with no universities doing dramatically badly. Other surveys do raise questions about the student’s sense of ‘value for money’ but that cannot be linked directly to ‘mediocre teaching’ or ‘lack of student engagement’. This is simply a useful line to justify the government’s action (or inaction) and to appeal to the general public (whom, it is assumed, are not positive in their view of universities).

Many of my evenings, however, over the last couple of weeks have been spent with one eye on the Olympics and one ear on the Proms, both outstanding examples of real excellence in practice. While we can, both as individuals and as a nation, take great pride in these achievements, and they clearly lift the morale of the nation as a whole, we do have to recognise that in each case we are talking about a very small elite.

I could never aspire to excellence in sport. I would find it very difficult to find a sport where I would be considered ‘mediocre’. That does not mean that I do not enjoy watching it and do not recognise excellence when I see it. Whether it is diving, rugby sevens, cycling, boxing or whatever else, it has been thrilling to watch people at the very top of their game compete and achieve. I can get caught up in the thrill of being second in the medals table as much as anybody else.

The Proms are perhaps a slightly different experience, at least for me. I do understand music. I did conduct ensembles and play the french horn up to university and have always appreciated the best performers over a wide range of the classical tradition. The various national youth orchestras that played over the weekend before last were thrilling, raw enthusiasm matched with outstanding talent all working together as a single unit. And, as always with the Proms, there have been a number of individual performances that have simply taken my breath away. Again, this is excellence, demonstrated by those at the very top of their profession and that can be recognised by all.

Few of us are going to be excellent in this sense, at least not in sport or music (although it is clear we do have some very talented individuals around the campus and we need to provide the opportunities they need for them to achieve at their very best). When I was teaching at Birmingham, however, my students were always very generous in their feedback, regularly rating it as excellent and on a number of occasions nominating me for awards. Teaching is in my blood (many of my wider family are teachers) and there are few pleasures greater than watching students get to grips with new ideas, grasp difficult concepts and begin to think critically and creatively for themselves, often outshining me in the development of their ideas. This is something I miss as a manager, but the same kind of thrill can often happen as I watch colleagues and those around me develop and achieve in their own particular field.

Research was much more difficult. Writing in particular was something that I have had to work very hard to develop. I had many rejections, false starts, poor reviews etc. as I have tried to improve and to see exactly where I was failing. Excellence in research and publication is not something I can ever take for granted and I have had to work very hard to understand enough of the discussion to be part of it, to communicate what it is that I want to say and to be recognised as one of the leading figures in my own field. Reviewers tend now to comment on the clarity and readability of my writing, which I find very rewarding, and I know that my theories and ideas are being taught in Universities from Melbourne to Stockholm, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, to name only those areas I am aware of. I do believe in excellence, therefore, and do believe that we can, and should, all aim to be excellent in our own chosen field, however hard the struggle.

Perhaps that does mean that there will continue to be some mediocre teachers within the University. These people will probably be excellent at other things; be it student engagement, writing research grants, or whatever else it might be. As with sport or music, while we can, and must, recognise the outstanding talent, such talent does not exist in isolation. The recognised stars are often part of a wider team or ensemble who share the limelight, but they are also supported and enabled by a much wider team of technical, scientific, medical, coaching, and management staff who make the individual performance possible. Above all, however, it is recognising the role that we all play, the combined effort, that allows us ultimately to take pride in the excellence of our staff and our students and to celebrate that whenever we see it.

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