'a model where teaching is shared between academics and specialist teachers has the potential to meet the myriad of challenges that lie ahead.'

Endpoint: David Read has the last word

Balanced scales

Source: Billion Photos/Shuttersotck

These are turbulent times for our universities. After years of booming overall numbers, the Browne Review and the government's subsequent actions mean that we are entering an era of great uncertainty. One of the few things we can be certain of is that students coming into HE from 2012 onwards will incur an unprecedented financial burden during their studies. What will they expect in return?

Students' expectations

The concept of going to university to read for a degree is a world away from the experience of students who have been treated to a wide range of high quality resources by their teachers at school. Whether they follow the OFSTED-favoured model of multi-part lessons and measurable learning outcomes, or a more traditional approach, good teachers are able to move their pupils forward lesson-by-lesson, scaffolding the learning and bringing clarity to the chaos. 

Excellent teaching is by no means universal, but Michael Gove was pretty close to the mark last year when he pointed out that 'we've got the best generation ever of teachers 
in our schools today'. The pitfall for HE is the fact that students with such positive prior experiences may arrive at university with unrealistic expectations. 

How does teaching in HE measure up? As Rob Jackson stated in the last issue (Education in Chemistry, March 2011, p62), the profile of teaching in universities has never been higher. I agree with his suggestion that research academics should be at the chalk face, delivering a high quality educational experience to our students. Such research-led teaching is exactly what many universities are looking for, but headwinds are gathering force that will challenge even the most committed of staff. 

Staff pressures

The new Research Excellence Framework will heap pressure on academics to prove their worth by generating and publishing world leading research, while increased competition for funding will mean more research proposals to write. Many institutions are also cutting back office staff, adding to the administrative load placed on academics. On top of that, we're asking them to shoulder the burden of rising student expectations by enhancing their teaching year-on-year. It's a lot to ask. 

In view of these multiple pressures, how can we reduce the burden on academics? A perusal of vacancies over recent years shows that increasing numbers of chemistry departments are appointing teaching fellows, with duties which range from lecturing and demonstrating in labs to running tutorials/workshops and producing learning resources. A teaching fellow may not have the same level of credibility when discussing latest developments in research, but they know their chemistry and have the specialist skills and the time to plan for effective teaching and learning. 

Teaching specialists have more time to engage with networks of likeminded individuals, sharing best practice and developing their ideas. They have the freedom to try out new approaches, tapping into existing educational research for ideas, or carrying out their own research and publishing findings in educational journals. A few interested academics have been doing this for years, with the annual Variety in Chemistry Education conference being a breeding ground for ideas, and the RSC's journal Chemical Education Research and Practice providing somewhere to publish outcomes. The difference now is that there is a lot more of this sort of activity going on in the research-intensive departments. 

Educational provision

Looking ahead, it is likely that our potential applicants will develop a nose for good educational provision. This will be assisted by social media, allowing the voice of disquiet within an institution to be heard from a distance. Dissatisfaction may arise more readily when students are paying a lot for their degree, and there may be a greater tendency to shout about it. Aware of this, universities will want to show evidence of a strong educational provision in their marketing, to promote the sense of value for money that applicants are likely to be seeking. 

I'm not suggesting a researchers do research, and teachers teach model. Academics who can induce learning in students by delivering their teaching with a liberal dose of inspiration should remain in the lecture theatre, helping to bring the best out of the next generation of chemists. However, we also need to give our researchers the time and space to generate the ideas and create the knowledge that will keep UK science at the forefront of world developments. All departments will need to find a solution that works for them, but a model where teaching is shared between academics and specialist teachers has the potential to meet the myriad of challenges that lie ahead. 

We've got to get this right to ensure that students get the high quality learning experience they expect, and to maintain buoyant numbers - there might not be any second chances.

David Read is school teacher fellow and director of undergraduate admissions for the school of chemistry at University of Southampton.

In January 2011 he was appointed chair of the Education in Chemistry editorial board.

Chemistry Education Research and Practice - The journal for teachers, researchers and other practitioners in chemistry education