Critical Perspectives on Academic Practice

The following are two short pieces written in June, 2012 as part of my PGCHE studies with the Univeristy of Kent. Both pieces are reflective in nature and have been written from both a personal and professional viewpoint as an HE in FE design lecturer.

Critical Perspectives on Academic Practice
by Tim Bones

Managing Student Expectations

“When students arrive at university, they carry with them a host of expectations about higher education – expectations that can be easily disappointed.”  Fearn and Marcus (2008)

It is with this opening comment in mind, that for the first part of this essay, I shall be discussing issues pertaining to student expectations. How these present themselves; the impact they have on all parties concerned, and to discuss approaches to managing student expectations. I shall do this in part via a particular case study of my own recent experience.

As Voss et al (2007) state, “…if higher education organisations have a good understanding of such students’ expectations, they should be in a better position to both manage and bring them to a realistic level.

However, achieving a ‘realistic level’ is a somewhat moot point in terms of what is feasibly achievable. The concept of a realistic level is a difficult problem to resolve, as it not only involves broad range of individual expectations, it also requires engineering a certain degree of mutual understanding between the university, the student as a learner, and the student as a paying customer. Ramsden (2008) stresses that “the idea of a single experience or set of expectations has no meaning. Higher education in this country is no longer dominated by 18 to 21 year olds living on campus, studying full time, attending classes…” adding that “their [student] expectations are as varied as their experiences.”

Therefore, clarity from the university, in terms of what a student can realistically expect from them, not only in terms of teaching and learning, but also with regards to support and social events, etc, is paramount in avoiding disappointment and may reduce the potential for poor retention. The university also needs to be as explicit as possible in terms of what the functions of higher education are, what their chosen course entails and to prepare and equip students for employment.

Students attending a college or university for the first time, or who are returning after a many years, may arrive with fixed preconceptions or possess “unrealistic expectations” about Higher Education. Voss et al, (2007). These notions may be formed by number of factors including–among many possibilities–second hand experiences, the internet, prospectuses, open days, etc. Conversely students occasionally arrive for interviews with absolutely no idea what to expect, having conducted little or no prior research into their course and the university of their choice.

One expectation that appears to have become increasingly strong is that of the consumerist concept of getting a return for the money students are investing into their education. I have found that an increasing number of our mature students will sometimes infer that their money is a means by which they can literally purchase the knowledge and insight that will in turn allow them to obtain good grades irrespective of their application. This concern is echoed by Mulholland & Osmond (2008) who state, “consumer principles have cut across into university life, and combined with an increase in the cost of Higher Education to the student, has led them to increasingly expect that they will be treated as consumers whilst at university.” Of course anyone parting with what are set to become increasingly vast sums of money for an education should rightly have a voice in the quality of the service that they receive, however, this is may conflict with some of the principles of HE. The Inquiry by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee into Students and Universities (2009) is “concerned to ensure that the idea of students as ‘customers’ does not take hold as this misses opportunities to develop the student experience as an active partnership between students and those who teach and support student learning.” 

Ferudi (2009) is more pointedly critical of the concept of the student consumer conflicting with the vales of Higher Education, stating that,

“Of course the reality is that the customer is not always right, especially in higher education. What counts as a good student experience – friendly atmosphere, progressive marking, lots of spoon-feeding, great social life – may have little to do with the provision of a challenging and high-quality education.”

Ferudi adds that,

“The celebration of the assertion of customer interests is part of a misguided attempt to hold higher education to account according to the doctrine of value for money. It is misguided because the customer model’s implicit assumption of a conflict of interest between client and service provider inexorably erodes the relationship of trust between teacher and student on which academic enterprise is founded.”

The following describes a very specific set of expectations related to subject preconceptions. Almost an entire year group (HND Graphic Design, Year 1) became quite vocal in giving specific demands for what they believe are the essential skills for a career in graphic design. These initial expectations almost always centre on the acquisition of technical skills, particularly the making of digital pictures. The students appear to be sourcing their opinions of what constitutes graphic design from the proliferation of design blogs and magazines such as ‘Computer Arts’ and ‘Digital Arts’, which are very much technique driven.

Whilst I positively encourage students to look at these sources for general inspiration, these sources appear compound their idea that the digital fine art they are wanting me to teach is in fact graphic design. The emphasis of the work showcased in many of the online sources is solely focused on technical trends. However, whilst as a design tutor I recognise the importance of researching certain trends and keeping technical skills honed and current, the problem is that this frequently gives the students an extremely misguided notion that this work is representative as that of the work produced by graphic designers as a part of their daily profession.

As such, the work students frequently refer to as graphic design, is often more akin to fine art, or at best, graphic art. The work sourced, and the work they wish to produce is seldom formed with design brief in mind. By that I mean a client brief that moves towards resolving a specific set of visual communication problems, such as an illustration that illuminates a narrative, or a typographic work that manipulates a specific audience to perform a certain action, i.e., to persuade, inform, act, etc. Instead, the showy visual work they wish to be taught is often self-indulgent, which, in terms of graphic design, largely misses the point of working to a clients’ dictate rather than for one’s own pleasure.

Some of the graphic design versus fine art issues may appear to an outsider to be splitting hairs, however, this remains quite a contentious issue within graphic design education. When a student’s preconceived ideas are challenged or even shattered this can result in a sense of disappointment all round. Marshall & Austin (2004) warn design tutors of the potential for graphic design courses becoming “training rather than academic” and to prevent them from solely focusing “on software skills rather than graphic design in its wider context”. They also acknowledge the problem faced by those teaching design,referring to the “tension exists between education and industry regarding the preparation of students in specialised software or creativity”, adding that, “changes in industry happen much faster than in education, making it difficult for education to keep up with the world of work.”

So what might be a realistic and achievable means to prevent such serious conflicts of interest?  Many of the problems associated with student expectations and educational providers may be resolved by giving clear IAG (Information, Advice and Guidance), which as the 1994 Group (2010) points out, “will support [prospective students] in making realistic and well-informed choices” as to what the student can expect prior to, throughout and after study.

Many university websites contain pages detailing what students can expect during study. For example, Worcester University (2011), has a webpage entitled ‘What will my course be like?’, which goes on to explain that, “your time may be considerably less structured than at school or college and you will be encouraged to take ownership of your learning experience.”  It continues, “Ultimately, you are in control of your own learning. In order to do well, you will need to develop effective study strategies.” This clearly suggests that the onus is on the student to be aware that they are largely responsible for their learning.

As well as pre-enrolment information being given, interviews are a good opportunity to advise students. Spreading the information over a period of time may help reinforce messages, as students can become overloaded with information during induction. As Fearn (2008) points out,  “Most universities in the UK pack a number of orientation and briefing events into just one week – Freshers Week. In the US, however, induction or orientation programmes are often scheduled over the whole of the first term…” This could prove to be far more effective than one intense set of sessions.

Jones & Gaffney (2008), suggest that well drafted learning agreements may go some way to resolving the problem in actually curbing “consumerist tendencies”, helping students recognise that they “are members of a community and co-producers of knowledge and skills.”  However, there is the potential for this formal agreement to become overly detailed, stifling and prescriptive to the point where it could become untenable or litigiously difficult to interpret if either party were to fall short of an agreement.

To conclude, it is perhaps too easy to believe that higher education tutors are going to have increasingly unreasonable demands placed upon them. However, like any other aspect of education, planning, implementing and reflective revision may potentially be the way forward in affording concerned parties the opportunity to shape educational experience. Ramsden (2008) warns of educators talking the issue into a problem that is greater than imagined, concluding that,

Hard evidence that students in higher education are more passive and consumer-minded than they used to be is slim; but this dystopian picture of today’s students and the likely students of tomorrow has the incipient signs of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It presents a threat to our reputation for quality. We must articulate a different view to meet the challenge that this distorted image presents.

Area 2. HE in FE: Professionalism and Professional Bodies

The second area for discussion is professionalism and the issues surrounding professional bodies and how they have a direct influence upon the status, development, and identity of lecturers, particularly within the context of my being a full time Higher Education lecturer within a Further Education environment at K College, Kent.

What is meant by ‘Professional’ in terms of an HE in FE lecturer working today? The Institute for Learning (IfL) — the professional teaching body to which I am obliged to belong — states rather vaguely that it “may be fruitless to try and pin down one exact meaning [of professionalism], like many words and concepts it has different dimensions and changes over time…” IfL (2009). Erring on the side of caution, the IfL use the OED’s definition that professionalism as a named entity is defined as ‘the qualities or typical features of a profession or of professionals especially competence and skill’

A lecturers’ knowledge and skills base are often vast when compared with many other occupations. For example, with specific regard to teacher professionalism, Robson (2006) makes a very significant point concerning the amount of knowledge required to teach a subject, stating that,

Unlike engineers, lawyers or nurses, for example, who all acquire specialist knowledge that is directly related to their field of practice, most teachers in post compulsory education are faced with first acquiring specialist knowledge of their chosen subject, and then the knowledge of how to teach it.”

This is certainly true when considering my own professional identity, and that of my colleagues teaching on courses traditionally considered vocational such as Graphic Design. After completing my HE design education, I undertook a Certificate of Education (Cert.Ed) and despite gaining the certificate and having a design education — and therefore being academically qualified to teach — I made the decision that I would not teach until I had what I deemed to be sufficient professional and commercial experience. I worked as a freelance designer for five years before taking up a teaching position, as this afforded me the opportunity to gain the skills and insight required to show others how to do it. Having practiced and investigated my subject and profession in depth, I felt confident in returning to teaching without feeling like a charlatan.  FE lecturers appear to place significant value on their industry gained skills “since so much of their credibility is attached to their prior occupational role”. Robson (2006)

Returning to that, which now defines and guides my professional teaching status as an HE in FE lecturer; I work within an FE environment and I am therefore bound by not only by the contract of this institution as an FEC employee, but that I am also obliged to remain a Member of the Institute for Learning (MIfL) in order to legally practice teaching in an FE environment. The IfL has its own professional ‘Code of Practice’, IfL, (2011) to which I am bound. This code lists expected members’ behaviours as:

  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Care
  • Practice
  • Disclosure
  • Responsibility

‘Practice’, the fourth behaviour, refers to CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and the IfL (2011), states that all “members shall provide evidence to the Institute that they have complied with the current CPD policy and guidelines”. This evidence for this CPD comes in the form of compulsory online reflection upon 30 hours of varied CPD activity. Lecturers may describe and reflect upon almost any aspect of their professional development. For example, one might reflect upon on training received, or a conference or exhibition attended, etc. The lecturer is then asked to describe the reason for undertaking the activity, describe the knowledge and skills gained, and to describe the impact of the activity. The reflective pieces are then labelled as either ‘Subject Specialism’, ‘Learning and Teaching’ and ‘Institutional Context’, or a mixture of the three. Other than observing the code of practice, this activity is the single act required of an IfL member. This can appear to be a scant and narrow requirement, which has led some lecturers to question whether they receive significant benefits beyond an annual form-filling exercise…Lee (2011)

As a paying member of an imposed professional body, I too question the benefits or usefulness of the IfL in terms of my professional development and identity as an HE in FE lecturer, and though I view reflection as an essential activity for lecturers–an activity that I perform consciously as a lecturer on a daily basis–I expect a professional body like the IfL to have mechanisms in place to enable my advancement as a professional practitioner and to potentially enhance my career prospects in a more measurable way. For example, within my prior profession, the UK graphic design industry has the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD) as its professional body. The CSD uses a points based system that allows designers to earn training points for engaging in activities such as publishing a paper, mentoring or attending a CSD seminar. Each activity is worth a certain number of points. The member can then put these points towards the 12 modules required for the award of the Design Association’s, Diploma in Design Business Management. This is a genuine incentive for engaging purposely with one’s profession in a wider context other than simply working as a jobbing designer.

The generally poor staff development of HE within FE could perhaps be partly resolved by allowing HE in FE lecturers to leave the IfL and apply to join the Higher Education Academy (HEA). In comparison to the IfL, the HEA appears to have a more rigorous set of entry requirements based upon professional standards set by The UK Professional Standards Framework (UK PSF) for Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education (2006). There are three levels of membership: Associate, Fellow and Senior Fellow and membership for each level requires evidence that the applicant satisfies specific elements of the UK PSF. The HEA is keen for members to engage and contribute discipline specific ‘Subject Centres’, of which the Art & Design centre has vast amounts of useful information, both subject and pedagogic specific.

With 172,000 students studying HE in FE, which equates to over 10% of the total undergraduate population, (UCU, 2010) the HEA actively support those working in HE in FE providing workshops that often focus on aspects of scholarly activity, other than reflection. As the HEA (2011) stress, “scholarly activity is a requirement for achieving professional recognition in the higher education sector.” Having been engaged in small-scale pedagogic action research project focusing on Graphic Design education, I am keen to undertake such an activity again, but as Robson (2006) points out that FE teaching workloads are significantly greater than in universities. Whilst 37 hours per week is treated as the norm in many FE institutions, annual teaching hours may reach 800 or 900 in some cases. This leaves very little time for subject specific research projects, shadowing or writing.

References & Bibliography

Fearn, H. & Marcus, J. Living the Dream. The Times Higher Educational.  Accessed 12/5/11

Voss, R. Gruber, T. and Szmigin, I. 2007. Service Quality in Higher Education. Journal of Business Research, 60: 949-959 Available:  Accessed 16/5/11

Ramsden, P. The Future of Higher Education Teaching and the Student Experience accessed 14/4/11

Mulholland, C. and Osmond, B. 2008. Student Expectations, University of Glamorgan. Online. Accessed 10/06/11

The Inquiry by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee into Students and Universities. Memorandum 49.  Online. Accessed 4/4/11

Furedi, F. 2009. Now is the Age of the Discontented. Times Higher Educational. Accessed 12/5/11

Marshall, L. and Austin, M. 2004. The Relationship Between Software Skills and Subject Specific Knowledge, Theory and Practice. Online. Accessed 6/6/11

1994 Group, Managing Students’ Expectations of University, Policy Report, November 2010. Online. Accessed 14/4/11

Jones, J and Gaffney-Rhys, R. 2008. How would the implementation of a “learning agreement” impact student expectation and satisfaction?…/Joannna_Jones.doc
Accessed 30/03/11

IfL, 2009, Professionalism and the role of professional bodies: A stimulus paper from the Institute for Learning

Robson, J. 2006. Teacher Professionalism in Further and Higher Education. Changes to Culture and Practice. Routledge.

IFL Code of Professional Practice

Lee, J, 2010.  Tertiary – Lecturers may boycott IfL in backlash against fee increase. TES Connect. Online. Accessed 12/06/11

The UK Professional Standards Frameworkfor Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education, HEA ?(2006)

Hurrell, L. 2009. Face to Face: A Professional Identity in Crisis or a Resolution through Research

Benefer, R, Jenkins, D, McFarlane,K and Reed, R. 2009. The HE in FE experience and culture for staff. (Staffordshire University)
Online. Accessed 13/06/11

Widdowson, J. 2003. HE in FE and scholarly activity – a discussion paper.

Jones, R, 2006. Scholarly Activity in the context of HE in FE