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‘Be the person who makes the difference’: an Irish-French reflection on strong learning and teaching practice

27 September 2017

With nearly 40 per cent of Europeans aged 30-34 now holding tertiary qualifications, universities have their work cut out delivering good learner-paced education to increasingly large and diverse populations.

This fourth interview on learning and teaching practice is with Grace Neville, Emeritus Professor at University College Cork and recipient of the French Légion d’Honneur for her work developing and supporting innovation in teaching practices. Grace will chair the closing plenary session capturing the outcomes and next steps after the European University Association’s Learning and Teaching Forum later this week.

Picture of Grace Neville

Has learning and teaching become more of a priority in recent years in Ireland and if so, why?

Absolutely. Irish people have always set a great premium on education. Since the 19th century they have used it as a way to escape from poverty. Having a good education meant having a passport to a better life.

On a more practical level, increased competition in recent years within and between countries for the best post-graduates has increased the focus on learning and teaching quality. Irish students are increasingly looking to go abroad for part of their student experience and these very mobile students seek out institutions that offer excellence across all areas.

Also, while fees in Ireland are relatively low and aren’t termed “fees” as such, this financial outlay means that students look for a certain level of excellence across the board.

While I find the idea of students as customers appalling, I believe that universities have improved the quality of their teaching partly in response to the introduction of fees.

Through my engagement in international initiatives I am aware of developments in other countries. In France, for example, there has been an active focus on teaching quality in HE under the ‘Investissements d’ Avenir’ programme. In 2012, the French government allocated close to 160 million euros to an initiative called IDEFI dedicated to pedagogical innovation, and to rewarding initiatives in teaching and learning. I had the honour of chairing the IDEFI jury.

What is good university learning and teaching in your view, and how can or should quality be assessed at institutional, system or international level?

Being very caricatural about it, one could say that research exists on one side, and learning and teaching on the other. There is a tendency to establish hierarchies between these activities that prioritise research over teaching and learning. In the systems that I admire, that dichotomy has been challenged and even turned on its head. The star lecturers teach in first year and they link research and teaching by showing new students why research is important, why learning is so valuable, and how the two are interlinked.

When it comes to quality assessment we have to look at lecturers and help them become better teachers. Student assessment of lecturers in France is very recent, but if we don’t listen to students we are missing most of the story. At University College Cork lecturers build portfolios of their teaching practice and these include feedback and questionnaire responses from students. It is up to the lecturers to put together a body of evidence to demonstrate that they are good teachers for establishment or promotion purposes.

Ireland has seven state universities which all enjoy significant autonomy. At Cork, we have put systems in place to reward people for excellent teaching and do so by giving them a title, an award, recognition, financial reward and/or promotion. Indeed, promotion in Ireland is based on research but also on other factors, such as teaching excellence and service to the community. In France, promotion still rides mainly on research so one can understand why lecturers are reluctant to focus on the time-consuming work involved in teaching. If there was one thing I would change in the French higher education landscape it is the promotion system.

Does University College Cork ensure a minimum standard of learning and teaching quality? If so, how?

In Ireland this issue is constantly debated. Should we make the pursuit of improvements in learning and teaching compulsory or optional for lecturers? Universities have the autonomy to choose their own solution and University College Cork has opted for an approach that sits between the two. We feel that a compulsory solution will lead to box ticking but an approach that is optional may not encourage the people we want to reach. New lecturers have two years in which to show that they have engaged in pedagogical courses or other activities to improve their teaching.

Some years ago, the university appointed a new vice-president who – with strong support from our university president – encouraged grass roots interest in teaching and learning among colleagues. This dual top-down and bottom-up approach has proved very successful.

What is the impact of a low focus on learning and teaching? If this topic is neglected, what are the symptoms of neglect?

High drop out rates and failure rates especially in first year. These are major issues here in France and cause significant concern in education and political circles.

I believe that young people have a tougher time finding their feet today than my generation did. If we put them into a situation where failure is a real possibility, we create a recipe for disengagement, not just on a personal level but also on a political level. This is a key issue in today’s world.

Have you seen fruitful results from pan-European university collaboration on the topics of learning and teaching? Should more be done in this area?

I have served on many committees on this topic and in France I am a member of committees at the ‘Agence Nationale de la Recherche’ and in the Sorbonne. These are advisory and evaluation committees composed of mainly non-French members who have been brought on board to convey the experience of other countries. I don’t know of any other country that has been as courageous and open as France with this approach. I hugely commend the French for it and encourage others to follow them.

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

There are many but I will focus on one, which is the French government’s IDEFI initiative. This is an inter-disciplinary, inter-establishment and international initiative where space was created for lecturers to test new teaching and learning approaches.

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

A primary barrier is psychological. People feel that excellent teaching is invisible and therefore unimportant. We need to promote and reward good teaching as we do with research. Improving teaching skills requires a lot of time and energy that is not necessarily recognised by promotion. There have been many calls for excellence in teaching to be factored into promotion, notably in a report by Claude Bertrand in 2014.

How should these barriers be overcome?

We could look at approaches in the USA, despite that fact that the HE system there is very different. Former university presidents, like Derek Bok of Harvard and Frank Rhodes at Cornell, have been very eloquent, persuasive and vocal about promoting excellence in teaching. In 2007, the president of Harvard Drew Faust greeted first year students with the words: “we are all teachers, we are all learners” – not: “I am the researcher and you the student.”

What is your message to policy makers interested in evolving university learning and teaching at national and European levels?

Address the central challenge, which is how to ensure that students become active lifelong learners. Everything else is organised around that.

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

You have the best job in the world. Enjoy it. Focus on the positives. You can be bogged down easily so seek out positive minded can-do colleagues. For a student to sign up to your course is an enormous compliment. How are you going to make it interesting? How are you going to make them want to come back to your classes week after week?

Be the person who makes the difference.

Grace Neville 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.

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