Towards a Joined-up Student Learning Experience at Oxford Brookes University

The need for a Student Learning Experience Strategy

Oxford Brookes University has a strong reputation for learning and teaching. Evidence of this includes excellent teaching quality audit results, external funding for learning and teaching innovation under a variety of schemes, high external profile of individual staff members in a number of fora, internal and national teaching fellows, and the recent appointment of a number of Oxford Brookes staff to key positions in the Higher Education Academy.

For the past three years colleagues have worked towards achieving the goals of the University’s last Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy. Significant progress has been made across all themes. However, the timing and context of its writing meant that many other connected activities, such as the widening participation project and the e-learning strategy, were perhaps not as well integrated as they should have been. In addition to that, many resulting successful outcomes of working groups initiated as a result of the strategy’s goals did not bear full fruition as implementation was sometimes hindered by factors outside the strategy’s remit. In the same vein, excellent staff development opportunities combined with enthusiastic and well-qualified staff would not necessarily lead to an excellent learning experience for students if an allocated classroom was not adequately equipped, the wrong size or perhaps not available due to double-booking.

It has become apparent that learning and teaching activities not only have to be seen in the wider context but have to be planned and strategised in the wider context as well. Classrooms can only be built or refurbished with staff and students and related activities in mind. Pedagogic innovation geared towards the users needs to be based on evidence and research. At the same time research-informed pedagogic theory has to be matched with pragmatic reality and cannot serve as a universal ‘fix’.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has funded universities over the past six years with the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF). This fund was allocated on a pro rata basis but was dependent on a satisfactory learning and teaching strategy. Over the past two years the fund has been increased with money for supporting professional standards. The funding serves partly as a recognition of the need to enhance learning and teaching activities and partly as a response to a greater competitive climate with an increasing accountability culture brought on by the Government’s drive to increase the universities’ performance in the context of diminishing resources.

The arrival of league tables in newspapers in the early 1990s has enhanced the competitive climate, in that future university students are increasingly referring to them when making their choices. These tables were based on a variety of factors, among them the results of Teaching Quality Audits (TQA), which aimed to ‘measure’ universities’ learning and teaching quality. The demise of the TQA system combined with the arrival of the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS) has led to significant consequences for universities. Whilst universities over the years had learned to maximise their TQA scores by concentrating on sometimes costly and bureaucratic procedures rather than on ‘real’ quality, there has been less scope for manipulating outcomes of the NSS, which is based on students’ responses only. As such, the survey is clearly only a measure of student opinion and not a direct measure of quality. The introduction of the ‘student satisfaction’ scores in place of TQA scores has produced greater movement than usual in the Times Good University Guide 2006. Only 10 of last year’s 100 institutions remain in the same position in the current table. In the longer term the abolishment of TQA scores could have a negative impact on Oxford Brookes University’s league table position as its evident successes in the learning and teaching context will not contribute to these tables anymore in a ‘measurable’ way. Two other factors, among many, determining positions in league tables are Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) results and A-level entry points. It becomes apparent that post-92 universities will struggle to break into the top 50 of these tables.

If Oxford Brookes wants to achieve its ambitions, it must create environments, in the wider sense, that enable students to achieve their potential and give the University a competitive reputation and position in the marketplace.

What is the “Student Learning Experience”?

The concept of a ‘student learning experience’ has engaged the Higher Education Academy for some time. Its aims and objectives are, among others: to be an authoritative voice on policies that influence student learning experiences; to support institutions in their strategies for improving the student learning experience; to promote good practice in all aspects of support for the student learning experience; and to lead the development of research and evaluation to improve the quality of the student learning experience (Higher Education Academy, p.4). However, when it comes to describing what is meant by the student learning experience, the Academy’s Strategic Plan 2005–2010 is less clear. It states: “Our focus on the student learning experience will lead us to work on all aspects of the student learning lifecycle – including strategies for retention, the effective uses of e-learning, the development of enterprise capabilities, and support for excellent research training environments.” (Higher Education Academy, p.3). The Strategic Plan also uses both the singular and the plural for ‘experience,’ signalling a reference to more than one experience but they do not refer to students in the plural, i.e. not recognising – at least linguistically – that students as individuals have different experiences. Conferences organised by the Academy have attracted contributions from many speakers, each trying to define what a student experience is or students’ experiences are. Questions discussed centre round the addition of the word ‘learning’ in this context and how narrow and focussed or how wide this term can be interpreted.

This discussion was also mirrored at Oxford Brookes University in the context of the consultation for the new Student Learning Experience Strategy. While some respondents wanted ‘learning’ to assume a greater role in the strategy, others wanted this term abolished com
pletely and preferred to concentrate on the ‘student experience’. Others again were happy to interpret ‘learning’ in the widest possible definition and see all elements of the lives of students as potential influences on the learners’ successes.

On the one hand, it is not easy to distinguish between social/informal and formal learning, between learning outside the classroom and inside the classroom, between learning general skills and learning subject-based skills. On the other hand, it is clear that, for example, inter-site bus travel arrangements do not fall into any category of the traditional concept of learning. However, only the smooth and frequent running of the bus services will make it possible for students to attend all of their lectures and seminars on time and as such satisfactory arrangements in this area will contribute to successful learning.

Therefore, the student learning experience for the University’s new strategy is interpreted here as the variety of experiences within the remit of the University’s responsibilities, which each individual student perceives and comes into contact with, and which in turn influences their learning opportunities. The most appropriate way of covering the multitude of experiences is to follow the students’ journey from when they first come into contact with the University until after they have left as alumni.

Process of strategic planning

In many cases institutional learning and teaching strategies are written by a group of enthusiastic colleagues in central departments of learning and teaching or professional development. Often these strategies are conceived in consultation with learning and teaching representatives from academic departments. Frequently, however, they are written in isolation from budget holders and in the context of competing demands. An example might be the requirement for new staff to take part in a professional development course for lecturers, which is well-thought out, challenging and well-received by participants. However, managers of these new staff who are budget holders and responsible for workload planning might not be willing to allocate sufficient time for staff to take part in these programmes due to financial restrictions or inappropriate resource allocations. The only way to overcome this problem is to make sure that those who are responsible for the distribution of budgets and those who are responsible for spending the budgets are involved right at the start, when strategies in learning and teaching are devised. This means that budget allocations need to be based on joined-up strategic planning in order to avoid unintentional overlap or competing requirements. This in turn means that the targets and outcomes of strategies’ action plans need to be appropriate for the relevant department and need to show direct benefits to them. As such, measurable performance indicators are a useful device.

This problem has been clearly identified by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the organisation that is making the additional TQEF available. However, this extra sum of money can only achieve so much in financially challenged institutions. Taking the example above, Supporting Professional Standards funding (SPS), part of the TQEF, might support a professional development course in teaching in higher education but it will not stretch to financial compensation for academic departments that have to release their staff for a proportion of their teaching, research or administrative time.

Joined-up strategic planning is difficult to achieve. It is made easier if all institutional strategies are deduced from university-wide goals and objectives. The following diagram shows this process:

Figure 1

It is not enough, however, to use this simple process as it does not avoid unintentional overlap or gaps between the various strategies and could hinder meaningful resource allocation. A way forward would be to use one strategy located at the centre of all others. It is debatable which one works best; depending on the mission and flavour of a particular institution, it could be research, finance, third-stream income or any other area. Oxford Brookes University’s notion of ‘excellence’ includes striving for an outstanding student experience. It is therefore argued here that a ‘student-centred’ institution should base all strategies around the Student Learning Experience Strategy.

Figure 2

A central Student Learning Experience Strategy can thus refer meaningfully to others. Evaluation and monitoring of identified actions can be carefully planned and relevant membership in committees as well as terms of reference for these can then reflect the strategic make-up.

A Student Learning Experience Strategy for Oxford Brookes University

Through the University’s strategic plan for the period to 2010, Oxford Brookes is working towards three goals of which the first is to be ‘a premier learning and teaching institution that is student centred, with a distinctive academic portfolio that promotes human understanding and creativity, and is focussed towards the professions, employment and continuous professional development’. Clearly, as a student-centred University and known as such, Brookes needs to build on this reputation.

Like other ‘new’ universities, Brookes faces financial challenges, compounded by the fact that most of its estate stems from the 1960s and 1970s, a contributing factor to high maintenance costs. In many institutions, decreasing national and central funding in real terms and an increasing number of ringfenced funds for specific purposes at a lower level in total have led to new but often atomised activities. Ironically, funds to stimulate enhancement of teaching initially raised the importance and quality of learning and teaching at an institutional level but recently – in cash-strapped universities – have also led to some resentment among a number of constituencies. Budget holders can be reluctant to free up staff time for teaching enhancement activities or for administrative activities connected to co-ordinating learning and teaching activities. Teaching colleagues might feel resentful if they perceive new procedures in the learning and teaching context to lead to an increased administrative burden especially if they personally feel that suggestions for improvement are not relevant to them or are even counter-productive. In many universities central units have been established, concerned with the enhancement of teaching. At the same time, some are staffed with colleagues, whose contracts no longer include teaching as a result of their new professional development work; they might lose credibility among those who feel resentful in the first instance. In addition, the increased pressure of preparing for the next Research Assessment Exercise has started polarising colleagues and departments and in most cases resources.

Increased student fees are starting to lead to a ‘customer’ mentality among many students and facilities are playing an ever-increasing role in choosing a potential university whilst being a major factor in league tables. The questions need to be asked whether the physical environment improves the institutions’ recruitmen
t efforts and the institutions’ ability to retain students. While many large-scale studies have been commissioned and evaluated in the United States in this context (e.g., Cain, 2006), British large-scale studies have concentrated on research of student retention in general. Individual institutions, however, have generated internal research evidence. For example, Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Edinburgh commissioned studies of decliners and of existing students, directly researching the effect of facilities on student recruitment. The outcomes at these two universities are very similar in that well-designed and maintained buildings and good equipment and facilities for subjects play a significant role in the recruitment and retention of students. This fits with Brookes’ realisation of the importance of physical learning environments that offer opportunities for a variety of learning styles and approaches. Other studies, such as Leathwood’s five-year-long longitudinal study at London Metropolitan University (Leathwood and Moreau, 2005), have concentrated on a range of aspects, among them academic administration. The research showed that reasons for drop-out were not only academically and financially related but also occurred due to inconsistent and incomplete information in an environment where the administration and organisation of the university were often criticised. The study also pointed to the need for good resources in terms of IT equipment, library books and teaching rooms (Leathwood and Moreau, 2005, p.53).

All in all, Oxford Brookes University cannot afford to rely anymore on its successes and reputation in the more narrowly defined field of learning and teaching and greater competitiveness and distinctiveness can only be achieved by a joined-up approach combining all aspects of the students’ learning experience. The added advantage of this approach is the drawing in of required ‘activity sponsors’ to ‘make things work’. All of these reasons and analyses have contributed to the perceived need to devise a joined-up Brookes Student Learning Experience Strategy as a successor to its existing Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy.

The first step for a successful Brookes Student Learning Experience Strategy has to be a consultation process that draws in constituents from all areas of the University. One of the most important groups – students – has contributed to it both directly and indirectly. Student Satisfaction Surveys have been used to evaluate the University’s needs from the student perspective indirectly, while the direct participation of students in conferences, in written feedback, on committees etc., has been invaluable when it comes to refining necessary targets. A second important step is to build on the successes of the current Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy and on Brookes’ pedagogic vision. This vision is based on the fundamental and creative importance of learning for personal growth and covers areas of equality of opportunity, well-constructed curricula, valid and relevant assessment and subsequent timely and constructive feedback, and professional development. Thirdly, a successful strategy needs to build on a small number of distinct but related strategic outcomes that are based on the University’s mission and goals. As such, the following five broad strategic outcomes have been agreed:

  • To provide learning experiences and opportunities for all students that are of the highest quality, and appropriate to their expectations and needs;
  • To establish learning environments that afford opportunities for a variety of learning styles and approaches, utilise appropriate technologies, and facilitate effective participation in higher education;
  • To provide effective support for all students as they prepare themselves for employability or career progression;
  • To ensure that our staff achieve the highest professional standards; and
  • To ensure that all services, processes and facilities with which our students engage are appropriate to their needs and expectations, and are of the highest quality.

The broader strategic outcomes translate into activities that find their homes in academic departments and directorates and, as such, become fully embedded.

A strategy is only as good as its implementation. Very often, central strategies can become tick-box exercises without a real impact at local level. Strategy-led approaches to change can be accepted at senior management level but not necessarily ‘further down’ due to a variety of factors. One of these factors tends to be the perception of a central strategy as not being value-free and not responsive to departmental needs. Another reason for not buying into a central strategy is that it might be perceived as restricting speedy innovation at local level. A joined-up consultative writing process makes strategies more meaningful and can support a top-down/bottom-up approach. Allocating funds for specific outcomes on a competitive basis can guarantee targeted activities in the ‘best practice-best fit’ spirit. Cross-referencing to departmental and other central strategies can create synergies, and appropriate membership at committees responsible for monitoring the strategy can ensure tight control. Performance indicators need to be meaningful and, if possible, measurable. Baseline information needs to be gathered against which progress can be monitored. Value for money needs to be a consistent factor in its evaluation in order to convince all parties in the University of the usefulness of such a strategy.

A quote from the Brookes Student Learning Experience Strategy sums up what needs to be achieved at Oxford Brookes University: ‘[…] we must create environments, experiences and opportunities for learning that enable our students to flourish and to achieve their full potential, and which give Brookes a distinctive and competitive reputation in the market place.’ This can only happen if colleagues think and act in a joined-up, relevant and meaningful way and adopt a ‘best practice-best fit’ approach. The new strategy for Brookes can make this happen.

Author Details

Petra Wend is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) and Deputy Chif Executive at Oxford Brookes University. She graduated in Italian, French and Education from Münster University in Germany and moved to England in 1987, completing her PhD in Italian Language and Literature at Leeds University. She has worked at various Higher Education Institutions as an academic and later as a senior manager, including Middlesex University (1989-1999) and London Metropolitan University (1999-2005), where she was Director of Learning, Teaching and Student Affairs. In June 2005 she joined Oxford Brookes University.

Bibliography

Cain, D. (2006). The Impact of Facilities and Retention of Students. Facilities Management, March/April.

Higher Education Academy (no date). Strategic Plan 2005-2010. retrieved on 14 June 2006 from the World Wide Web

Leathwood, C. and Moreau, M-P. (2005). Longitudinal Study of Students’ Learning, Experiences and Progression. London Metropolitan University.

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