In exploring the notion of ‘excellence’ in university teaching we have adopted a number of paradigmatic lenses to guide our sensemaking. The first one that comes to mind is the Darwinian ‘adaptive’ lens. This suggests that the primary goal of university education is to ensure that the graduate leaves with a range of skills which enable her to adapt to the rapid technological, economic and political changes taking place in society. A particular focus here is the need to equip all graduates with the requisite technological skills as “almost every career will demand some understanding of data science and algorithmic thinking” (Marshall, 2017).
Another common lens derives from the cluster of beliefs and values rooted in market capitalism. Here students are ‘consumers’ and universities are competing in increasingly global markets for student business. Excellent education is viewed as an ‘investment’ that yields hundreds of thousands of dollars in future earnings ‘Teaching excellence’ is construed as the mechanism that delivers a competitive edge for both the student and the HE institution, and hence is the “most valuable asset” the institution possesses (Schleicher, 2017).
Both of these lenses have much to offer the debate; both of them too have their blindspots. What is missing, however, is a more developmental and spiritual perspective on the role of higher education. It is dangerous to assume that the views of current opinion formers on what society needs, should provide the sole template for future definitions of excellence in teaching. This ‘society-led’ view misses the most important element in the construction of excellence – that is what do students, as holistic beings, need at this time of their lives?
Of course, students need knowledge. Of course they need skills – in particular technological and communication skills. But in a turbulent and multicultural environment, where there will be winners and losers, and where anxiety about jobs and prospects is on the increase, students need a secure sense of identity, meaning and purpose; and perhaps most of all they need hope.
According to the theory of emerging adulthood, the ages between approximately 18 to 25 are characterised by identity explorations: answering the question “who am I?” and trying out various life options. It is a time of great instability but also one of possibilities and optimism when hopes flourish and young people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.
However, we are noticing increasing cynicism in our young people and often despair in the face of forces over which they feel they have no control. Levels of mental health problems in young people are increasing with rates of depression and anxiety having risen by 70% over the past 25 years (Bell, 2016). Rates of young people turning up in A&E with psychiatric conditions have doubled since 2009. According to a 2016 survey “93 per cent of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers and 90 per cent thought the issues were getting more severe” (Bell, 2016). Many of these problems have been attributed to: overly materialistic societal values; pressure to achieve the highest grades in exams; responsibility to meet the expectations of parents; fear of the future (job losses due to automation and increasing competition for graduate jobs); social media – from Facebook envy to cyber bullying; advertising pressures that promote perfect body images and celebrity lifestyles (Bell, 2016).
At a time when young people are actively exploring identity and purpose, both of which are increasingly targeted by the ‘brand’ culture, it would seem that higher education has a role to play in guiding students in their exploration of these issues. This is not to be done simply by the provision of yet another ‘well-being’ initiative that enables the institution to tick the mental health box. Rather this should be done collaboratively both in and outside of the classroom, exploring together what a happy and flourishing life might look like in the 21st century. This age group is uniquely open to the deeper questions of life – questions around identity, meaning and purpose – and help in addressing them can help provide a solid foundation for a healthy, fulfilling and enriching life.
Current structures of teaching in H.E. inhibit the exploration of these questions. It seems amazing that students in the UK are paying £9000 for 8-10 teaching hours a week. Many of these teaching hours, especially amongst the larger institutions, will be in halls of over 200 students with a lecturer talking through 20 powerpoint slides. Students may be actively discouraged from contacting lecturers outside the class even to ask simple questions of understanding.
Real excellence in teaching must be student-centred and focused on developing the knowledge, skills, emotional and spiritual development to help equip our young people for the unique challenges they face in entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This will not be easy to achieve but aspiring to anything less than this, does students, and our profession, a great disservice.
Dr Karen Blakeley and Dr Sabine Bohnaker - University of Winchester Centre of Responsible Management – Responsible Management Education Group