A brief history of UK HE and how we have arrived at our Interconnected curriculum.

One of the instruments, fundamental to student success, is the curriculum which they study. Its design, standard and quality are essential if students are to be employed or undertake further study. There are many theories governing curriculum design but in the UK we have a comment tenet – that curricula must be ‘constructively aligned’ and meet or exceed national standards. But it was not always so.

Universities have been around in various guises for hundreds of years but in the early days, they were the domain of the wealthy who focused on exploring ideas and theories to advance our knowledge in a whole range of theoretical areas. The development of the ‘modern’ university is attributed to Humbolt in the 1800s and he envisaged that universities should be based on scientific logic, reasoning and research. Since many of our most established and influential institutions date from this time, it is hardly surprising that research still is an important element in their work. This ‘modern university’ was designed to meet the needs of the industrial age – to advance our knowledge and understanding of physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering to boost our productivity through ‘modernizing’ our manufacturing processes, which were the backbone of the British economy. Interestingly, in the early 1900s, this focus on supporting the economic basis of our culture seemed to disappear and when an emphasis on the  employability of students emerged in the late 1900s, early 2000s, academics seemed surprised, and yet seemingly, UK HE had been focused on promoting the economy since the emergence of the modern university.

Very little change occurred in UK Higher Education until the 1960s. It was largely self-regulated and institutions were quite autonomous. At the end of the second world war, there was a baby boom for which the education sector was ill prepared. As a result, the government commissioned a report on the future of Higher Education and its expansion. The Robins report in 1963 suggested that there was a growing economic dependence on HE and no real ‘system’ in place. The report recommended the production of a policy to widen participation and increase student numbers to provide the highly educated graduates that the modern economy would require. It also contained the first suggestion of student loans. A massive increase in student numbers did ensue and the costs were managed by rationlisation of how Universities undertook their business i.e. staff numbers were decreased, class sizes were increased and a student number cap was introduced.

The report also recommended the expansion of postgraduate study and an increase in the choice of subjects on offer at this level and this eventually led to the concept of modularization (supposed to encourage greater access and increased flexibility to meet the needs of the working population).

The report also recognized the need for some quality control measures and national standards. At the time, the only external opinions expressed about the quality of provision were from external examiners, and there was no framework for how they opinions might lead to enhancement or change in the courses they examined.

However, as ever, the cogs were slow to turn. In 1992 we saw the introduction of the Further and Higher Education Act which heralded the conversion of polytechnics to ‘new Universities’ and the end of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). This enabled the rapid expansion in Higher Education suggested almost 30 years earlier in the Robins report. As a result of the act, there were two major forms of quality assurance in the UK known as ‘audit’, (carried out by the Higher Education Quality Council) and ‘assessment’ carried out by the Funding Councils, which licenced all higher education institutions (now replaced by the Office for Students).  Both these activities were made the responsibility of the new body, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Only 3 years after the new act, the government’s Dearing Report was published. This again put an emphasis on widening access and led to the introduction of Access agreements (now Access and Participation plans) and the associated funding. Also, as a result of the report, the government started collecting individual student data, which was really the start of HE metrics.  The report also gave the QAA the remit of providing assurance about standards and quality, following which it developed the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), subject benchmark statements and eventually the Quality Code. Importantly, the report also recognised the need to provide appropriate training to staff (particularly in teaching) and to look for national accreditation of programmes. It was at this time that the institute for Learning and Teaching was established which later became part of the Higher Education Academy, itself now part of Advance HE.

Dearing’s report highlighted the fact that staff perceived financial rewards and promotion opportunities to be associated with long service or research excellence and not with excellence in teaching and these observations led to a range of projects and schemes to promote the value of excellent teaching (FDTL, NTFS, CETLs) but it  is arguable that any of these led to improved regard for ‘those who teach’.

Interestingly the report showed that academic staff were not happy with the quality of support they could offer students which they felt had declined due to the need to undertake ever more administration and management activities. Staff were also concerned about large class sizes and this was reflected by the desire of students to work in smaller groups. Students were also critical of the scale of academic support available to them and about the feedback they received on their work.

In 19 years (since the Dearing report), WP improved considerably but Universities were still not meeting the demands of employers, teaching was still not recognised and students were still unhappy about assessment, feedback, and contact. As a result, in 2016 we saw the introduction of the Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) which became law in 2017 (Success as a Knowledge Economy) and introduced the most profound and rapid changes in Higher Education to date. It was driven by the principle of students as customers, the existence of the highly-skilled employment gap, and the need to satisfy employers demands.

The Higher Education and Research Act led to the immediate introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (now the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework but still referred to as the TEF) and the replacement of the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales by the Office for Students. It also led to a data-driven approach to monitoring the performance of institutions backed up by a more person-centred/student outcomes driven approach to ensuring the quality and standard of provision. As part of this change the Quality Code was rewritten in its entirety, condensed and focussed on national standards and parity within and between institutions. As a result, our approaches to curriculum design had to change and become more focussed on national frameworks for qualifications and level learning outcomes. It is more important that people (students, externals, experts, and colleagues) are engaged in designing and delivering the curriculum and less important that extensive paperwork is undertaken. As a result, at UWL we have redesigned our curriculum approval and reapproval process to ensure that people understand the importance of good curriculum design (which includes learning outcomes, assessment and teaching strategies, and alignment of the curriculum to ensure students can demonstrate the expected outcomes).

On the menu you can follow the approach we have taken, access the resources we use, and explore how we ensure our curricula support student success and attainment of our graduate attributes.