The University as Community: lessons from research

Recently I gave a ‘lecture’ in the college of which I am a part, a ‘reflection on my research, both quantitative and qualitative elements’. On the day, just 8 people came along, so in a lecture room that holds 500 that felt a little odd. Cosy though. However, whilst a tad disappointed, I reflected that this event HAD given me the chance to do some reading – on the philosophy of science; to dig out some pics of myself as a postdoc in Japan 30 years ago (below); and to reflect on the nature of the university. I also decided to try Slideshare, and I uploaded the slides (see below).


Slides alone though only convey surface information, they do not tell the story. So I have reproduced the closing thoughts of the lecture, about the status of Universities, in my own blog, and these are further reproduced here in the SEDA blog. I’ve commented on a. research as a part of undergraduate programme; b. the way in which Universities do, or do not, engage with the field of research into teaching and learning.

All subject fields comprise represent the assemblage of a body of knowledge. Indeed, one definition of a PhD is making an original contribution to a body of knowledge. Part of a University education is to introduce students into a subject field, and into the associated community of practice; research is a part of defining what that field (and community) is. Therefore we need to be engaging students in the research enterprise from first year, not waiting until their final year dissertation / project. Research-informed teaching is an important concept to use in curriculum design, and to use it from the start of degree programmes.

Universities as centres of learning, should transpose the idea of a body of knowledge to their own workings. All too often – and I have worked in the sector long enough to see this happen – that body of knowledge around teaching and learning is not valued or engaged with. As a result, mistakes are repeated, initiatives are repeated. All too rarely do we build on the achievements of the field in the way that the wider research community does. A lot of work around learning and teaching has been carried out; a body of knowledge, a discipline, has been created; a community developed. Yet the elements of that body or discipline have been sorely under-used by institutions.

A subject discipline is a community. It may be cut and thrust at times, but the subject develops, through empirical exploration and occasionally through paradigm shifts. In my time as course leader of the PGCert Learning and Teaching in HE I have seen staff develop their practice out of recognition, and I am passionate about maintaining the community of practice which developed amongst those participants. The wider community of the University often seems to be fragmented, lacking a common purpose, and often not talking the same language. There is another lesson here from science; operating in Kuhn’s ‘normal’ mode there is a risk of science (and scientists) becoming so specialised that communication with wider society breaks down. So perhaps a common language and a sharing in the pedagogy of teaching and learning is needed across our Universities. My previous vice-chancellor said that the academic function should be at the heart of the University, and he was absolutely correct to do so. There should be a common purpose for all the different parts of a University.  I often refer to the quality tail wagging the academic dog; there should be no dog and no tail. The University needs to function and operate not as a business but as a community, and a scholarly community at that, and I think our new vice-chancellor recognises this. The academic function is not a commodity, it is core to what a University is (as John Henry Newman said back in 1854). However, the responsibility lies with ALL, both academic and non-academic; and maybe it is time for that particular boundary to be dismantled, or at least subsumed into a wider community of practice.

Peter Lumsden @PLumsden

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