That extra stretch makes all the difference

by
29 September 2017

Pat Ashworth looks into the way two Christian universities have struck gold

Steve Smailes, The Lincolnite

Team at the top: the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jayne Mitchell, and the Vice-Chancellor, Canon Peter Neil, of Bishop Grosseteste University

Team at the top: the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jayne Mitchell, and the Vice-Chancellor, Canon Peter Neil, of Bishop Grosseteste University

TWO Christian universities were among the 43 that received the Gold standard in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment intro­duced by the Government last year. Liverpool Hope, and Bishop Grosse­teste (Lincoln) outperformed many prestigious universities: only eight of the elite Russell Group of 24 achieved the top award.

Liverpool Hope became a uni­ver­sity in 2005, and is the only ecu­menical university in Europe. In 2011, it had the lowest drop-out rate among similar universities in the north-west, and 91.6 per cent of its graduates were in employment or postgraduate education.

When the maximum student fees were raised to £9000 in 2012, Liver­pool Hope lost 96 per cent of its government grant for under­graduate teaching. In response, it initially set lower fees, and, through its existing restructuring pro­gramme, cut costs, at the same time improving the staff-to-student ratio. Capping the number of students at 10,000 has helped to maintain a high-quality student experience.

 

LIVERPOOL HOPE was credited in the TEF with “outstanding levels of stretch”. It was praised for its “em­­bedded culture of valuing excellence in learning and teaching”; for the diversity and employability of its students; and for the “efficient tracking and personal support” that they received. All of this has de­­lighted the university’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gerald Pillay.

He has firm views on what a uni­versity is for, describing the desig­nation of teaching universities and research universities as “non­sense”. “We appoint researchers to teach as well,” he says. “This is no criticism of anyone, but you can have great international stars on your staff, and the students never meet them. They are brought out of teaching to do research, and Ph.D. students do the filling-in. That’s totally unaccept­able.”

He is fond of quoting Cardinal Newman, who believed that a uni­versity should be neither a treadmill, a mint, nor a foundry. “Isn’t that wonderful?” Professor Pillay says. Of the reliability of TEF, he ponders: “I think you’re going to have prob­lems with any set of metrics. You know what Einstein said: not every­thing that can be counted matters, and not all that matters can be counted.

Liverpool Hope UniversityBake off: students in the nutrition lab at Liverpool Hope University“The fundamental problem is not with the metrics, but with the no­­tion of this Government, and the previous coalition government, that you can reduce this to a market where the students are customers. It’s a travesty as far as university life is concerned.

“At Hope, we’re not worrying about satisfaction: we are worrying about stretching education and en­­gage­­ment. At the end of it, by virtue of a top education, students are satisfied. But it’s often not while they study, but later in life, when they make the breaks they need.”

So the university is not “clinging to the metrics”, he says, but trying to be faithful to its nature, and “giving its students the best possible educa­tion they can get. And if these meas­ures turn out all right, then fine.”

 

THE Christian element brings for­mation to the process, he reflects, “not only forming our students into serious scholars and educating them properly, but also forming them into good and fine people. We focus on the individual as the person we are in service to, but the student is not the centre of the university, as the White Paper argues. For us, a culture of scholarship forms its heart.”

Every first-year student meets weekly in a group of ten, “ensuring that no individual is anonymous”. Liverpool Hope is one of the few universities where the first year counts towards the degree credit; an integrated curriculum has replaced the modular system, and students have to cover the full curriculum. They can also do summer work in a developing country: an opportunity, Professor Pillay says, “to be exposed to the human predicament”.

Where funding is concerned, “you can’t change the price, but you can change the value. And that’s coming out of our Christian moral training,” he suggests. Top-end students come to Liverpool Hope as well as many from disadvant­aged backgrounds, he says. “We have a heart for that. We have, I think, subverted that notion of hierarchy.

“If this table has any value, it’s undermining the system’s congealed privilege. I think that a Christian university true to its nature, com­mitted to scholarship, should be subversive in the best sense of that word.”

 

BISHOP GROSSETESTE is ranked seventh among all the universities in the country for graduate employ­ability. It, too, is credited with “out­standing levels of stretch”. Like Liverpool Hope, it started out as a teacher-training college, and its Vice-Chancellor, Canon Peter Neil, observes that it is still seen as such in some circles, despite the univers­ity’s expansion into areas such as humanities and social sciences.

Liverpool Hope UniversityShaping the clay: a Liverpool Hope University design student slipcasting in the ceramics workshop on the university’s Creative CampusWhat TEF found — “a well-established institutional culture which recognises and rewards excel­lent teaching” — is embedded, he says. “It isn’t something we were jumping through the hoops to achieve. It is ongoing and sustained, and it’s just wonderful to have the recognition it brings us.”

He broadly welcomes TEF as highlighting elements perhaps pre­viously buried beneath the surface. “Teaching needs to be recognised,” he considers.

“If I have a concern, it is that we end up with a polarisation of teaching on the one hand, and research on the other. What I wouldn’t want to happen is a ‘We’re a good TEF institution and you’re a good REF [Research Excellence Framework] institution.’”

He goes on: “We’re not compet­ing with Oxford and Cambridge. Our students wouldn’t survive there. But we were set up in 1862 to make a difference to education in this county and beyond, and we’re con­tinuing to do that and to expand.

“All our staff teach. Teaching is in our DNA. We have some really good stars in both research and teaching, and staff are committed to ensuring the students have a high-quality learning experience. We’ve also done a lot of work in getting the staff to enhance their own teaching portfolio.”

 

THE university’s new centre for the enhancement of teaching and learn­ing, staffed by academics with ex­­pertise in areas such as digital learn­ing, is for both students and staff, who work together on projects to manage change for the benefit of both. There are volunteering and employability awards, and careers support extends to two years after graduation, together with a raft of other services. There is regular networking with businesses and schools.

Like Liverpool Hope, students here are working with lecturers who know them, and can target support for their individual needs. “Efficient tracking and personal support” equates to good pastoral care in Christian terms, Canon Neil says, acknowledging that student num­bers, at 2300, make a difference, and praising the chaplaincy support in particular.

Bishop Grosseteste was granted full university status in 2012. Tu­­ition fees, now £9250, were initially set at £7500: considerably lower than most. But subsequent research showed that the fee element had played no part whatsoever in stu­dents’ choice.

“We have done a lot to explain to students how we spend the fees. While I might think that free education is better, this is gov­ernment policy, and we make the best of it,” Canon Neil concludes.

“We give students the best edu­cation we possibly can; we support them throughout, and they go from here changed people. We put them into society and make a difference to their lives. I think we’re doing something right.”

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