Twenty Months In – Reflections at the end of 2016

Somebody asked me earlier today what I felt about my first year and a half in Swansea. My response was that at one level it felt that I had been here for ever. I really love the community, have got to know so much of what is going on, and feel that I am working closely with so many wonderful people, that it is difficult to remember what it was like not to be in Swansea. At another level, of course, it seems like no time at all and when I look back at what we have achieved in the last twenty months (I arrived on 1st May 2015) I am somewhat amazed at what has happened.

The time has been dominated, so far as learning and teaching goes, by the two main projects: STEP4Excellence and Go Beyond. I remember that shortly after my arrival we were discussing the agenda for senate and the VC said, very matter of factly, ‘Oh, Martin can present his vision for learning and teaching at Swansea’. I took this as a challenge and despite having only been around a month or so, and having listened carefully to some of what was going on, I presented a vision that involved two elements. The first was a call for a partnership between academics, students and employers in the development of learning at Swansea, building on our origins as an engaged University that has always worked closely with industry and local public sector institutions. The second was to put up a slide that showed how 2015/16 would focus on student engagement (STEP4Excellence) and 2016/17 would focus on curriculum reform (the title Go Beyond only came much later).

I do not claim to have invented or initiated STEP4Excellence, it was something that I inherited when I arrived, but it has been an honour to work with my colleague Steve Wilks, with the various theme leads, the student theme leads, the professional service staff and many others who have supported the programme. It was also something that fitted beautifully with my own values and spoke directly to the theme of partnership with which I opened my presentation.

STEP4Excellence has achieved a great deal already. The original four themes have led to a number of initiatives that will go on to transform the way we work at Swansea. Attending the training session for new student reps on a Sunday in October earlier this year, and being presented with a large room full of students eager to be engaged in representing their colleagues was a particularly powerful expression of what STEP4Excellence has achieved already. We are also piloting new ways of engaging students through mentoring and academic development plans as an alternative to personal tutorials (alongside the welfare support networks that are essential to make this possible) and getting close to piloting new forms of module feedback that aim to put the module leader in charge of their own feedback process. Both of these programmes, once they are fully introduced, will without question be sector leaders, things that Swansea will be doing that are different from, and I would argue ahead of all other Universities in the UK.

Most importantly, however, STEP4Excellence has led to a culture change across the institution. Through the hard work of colleagues, both academics and professional services, and above all the absolute commitment over two years’ from the full time officers at the Students Union, we have established the idea of partnership with students, at all levels of our work, as normative and not as something exceptional, across the University. This is an impressive achievement and will lay the foundation for much of the work that we still have to do over the next few years.

The two themes that have been part of STEP4Excellence for 2016/17 build on this success and aim to embed it further into the fabric and culture of the University. These are focussing on student participation, especially within modules (both within the teaching session and in decision making on issues such as assessment) and on student empowerment, something that was requested specifically by the student body.

Curriculum reform, or Go Beyond as we have branded it, was always going to be something that would be picked up in 2016/17, building on the work of STEP4Excellence and the student engagement that this has embedded. It was clear, even within the first few months of my time at Swansea, that there were some excellent examples of learning and teaching taking place across the University but that there was no clear sense of direction, nothing that I could point to and say this is what Swansea does, or to put it another way, nothing that could distinguish the Swansea graduate.

This led me to begin thinking what a programme of curriculum reform might look like within Swansea, drawing on our strengths, the good practice around the Colleges, relating clearly to our wider vision of a research intensive University that also engaged closely with industry and the public sector, and that would meet the very practical needs of a growing student population. This has eventually developed into Go Beyond with strands that are looking at delivery (especially through blended learning), professional development, internationalisation, assessment and feedback and so on. One strand has been looking at the shape of the academic year, the academic day and modes of delivery that are more space efficient than many current practices. We will be going to consultation on these proposals during the next few months. Other elements will also be explored in more detail and I am hoping that we can devise a method of communications (including this blog and extensive opportunities for face to face engagement and discussion with academic staff and students) that will facilitate a real conversation between academic staff, professional services and students. This should enable all subject areas within the University to engage in a process of review, with clear guiding principles, during the academic year 2017/18 and hopefully the implementation of any changes in time for the academic year 2018/19.

What I am proposing here will, of course, be a major programme of change across the University. This will build on all the good practice that is already taking place and will not make any changes simply for the sake of change where things are already working well. It should, however, help all of us to think much more carefully about what we are doing in our learning and teaching and to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

So, if the last twenty months have been full and challenging with so much going on and so much distance already travelled, the next twenty months will clearly be just as full and transformational, not just for me, but for the University as a whole.

Finally I want to offer a really big THANK YOU to all those who have been involved in these activities over the last twenty months. All your hard work is very much appreciated.

Have a wonderful Christmas and let’s have a really great 2017!

 

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