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Giving the Bologna Process a breath of fresh air

25 September 2017

image of the university of El SalvadorIn the run up to the European University Association’s First Learning and Teaching Forum at Paris Jussieu on 28 and 29 September, we continue our interview series on learning and teaching. This interview is with Gilles Roussel, President of the French Conference of University Presidents (CPU), President of the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and a researcher in technology and robotics.

For over 40 years the CPU has participated actively in the public debate on education issues, supporting university presidents in their responsibilities and promoting the French university system and its values. The CPU is co-organising the EUA’s Learning and Teaching Forum which is hosted by the University Pierre and Marie Curie (UPMC).

Has learning and teaching become more of a priority in recent years for French universities?

It is a topic that is increasingly important in France, and it seems to be a European, indeed, international trend. It coincides with a growing concern about the reputation of HEIs and an increasing need for universities to attract diverse student populations. The way in which we welcome students has become more and more important.

In addition, traditional teaching methods have changed. Young students now expect a more individualised approach through the use of ICT and things that capture their attention. Today, a masterly lecture delivered to a large audience in a big amphitheatre is no longer what most students expect.

What is good university teaching and learning?

  1. An institution that manages to adapt to the diversity of its public.
  2. Despite increasingly high student numbers, paying attention to each individual student.
  3. The ability to equip a young student with the capacity to evolve and to learn independently and to eventually confront new problems that are not yet resolved.

image of Gilles GrousselWhat level of priority does learning and teaching have for CPU members and within the French government?

The priority given to the topic can be seen in the training schemes made available to professors, which depend also on the budgets provided by government and allocated within the university. Priority can also be seen in the strategic steps taken by government and universities, and how these are communicated. For example, if a university decides to put resources on flipped classrooms, this demonstrates its strategic will.

There are national initiatives in France that place greater emphasis on learning and teaching. For example, there is the Commisariat Général à l’Investissement (CGI) scheme which offers financial support for the development of new cursus’ for the on-going training of university professors. There have also been investments in the use of digital teaching methods. I believe the current government is determined to invest in learning and teaching but there is always a financial strain regarding the level of investment in this area compared with research and development, and budgets are increasingly tight.

Do you support minimum standards on learning and teaching quality?

A key part of the role of the Forum next week is the sharing of best practices and while there may not be an immediate benchmarking exercise, the Forum will allow universities to explore solutions that work. It is interesting to see that many universities beyond France are experiencing the same challenges in learning and teaching as we are. It isn’t only a question of organisation and law although this is very important. In France, universities are restricted in what they can do; there is not enough autonomy for us to act on concerns like learning and teaching.

What is the impact of a low focus on learning and teaching? i.e. if this topic is neglected what are the symptoms of neglect?

Reputation will decline. We can see a drop in the reputation of some universities on this score. I believe that universities have a responsibility towards those that they serve. We should be doing the best for our youth. Any decline in reputation is also very discouraging for university staff.

What are your expectations from next week’s Forum?

My first expectation is international exchange. There is a need to make the issue known and ensure that it is understood at EU level and internationally. There is also the dimension of best practice sharing and shared training strategies. Importantly, this forum is the occasion to boost the Bologna Process which has advanced from a technical perspective but needs more momentum on the practical side where there is a lot to do, especially in the area of training. This is an opportunity to influence European decision-making.

Are there best practices you are aware of that we could share across the European university community?

I’m looking forward to next week’s forum in this regard and am hoping to learn about practices that we could replicate in France.

Are there external and internal barriers to progress in learning and teaching evolution? If so, what are they?

We need to alter the way some colleagues think about teaching. Achieving this change in our institutions is a long-term process. There are often a few very enthusiastic individuals on the university staff who have a strong interest in innovative teaching practices but we need a wider transformation.

Academics also need to accept to get some support. In the past, they were the sole source of knowledge. Now, they need to accept that there are external supports contributing to knowledge.

Some colleagues also think in terms of changing student attitudes but students are university customers. The world has changed and it is part of our role to accompany young students in that change and ensure that they succeed.

Another barrier is the under-financing of university education by the government. Universities are bound to accept students as part of their social responsibility, which is good, but without the power to assume that role consistently. We need increased responsibility with clear objectives; let universities experiment and take a more scientific approach. The government can provide the over-arching objectives but let us choose the means. For example, time spent on digital teaching or experimenting with new techniques is not counted within staff working hours, which is something that constrains advancement in this area.

What advice on learning and teaching would you give a new university lecturer facing their students in the coming academic year?

Follow the internal training courses on offer in your institution and be mindful of your two roles of teaching and doing research, and treat both equally. Don’t lose sight of one on behalf of the other.

Also, don’t forget that you are a researcher and that the demands that you make on yourself in the field of research should be the same as those you make in your teaching. Good teaching is a continuous process.

Experiment, exchange with your colleagues. Throughout your career refresh your skills in this area as the needs of your students evolve and the means available to you change.

What advice would you give students?

Your future is in your hands. University learning is not an obligation so it is your responsibility to make the most of it and be proactive in your own success and in the way you analyse the subjects you study.

Be wary of becoming entrenched in any negative attitude and be active in the transformation of pedagogies. You have a role as a co-producers of pedagogy and a contribution to make.

Gilles Roussel will be speaking alongside other European university advocates for exchange and success in learning and teaching at the First European Learning and Teaching Forum in Paris 28 and 29 September.

This article is part of a series on learning and teaching available on the European University Association website.

European University Association (EUA)

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