Will Focusing on Teaching and Research Make Students Work Harder?

Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia,writes in Times Higher Education that a new generation of dual-intensive universities — institutions that focus on both teaching and research — can support students to make them work harder.

According to Acton, the definitive common feature of dual-intensives is the limited, personal scale of their undergraduate intake. This facilitates close individual focus on each student within an exhilarating environment of top-quality research and healthy undergraduate-to-postgraduate ratios. Though the context of Acton's argument is within the United Kingdom, universities worldwide are paying attention.

The dual-intensives are typically located on an agreeable residential campus with high-calibre social, sporting and cultural facilities, and collegiate in ethos and sometimes in structure. These institutions create an intense and integrated community of scholarship. They are ideally formed to make real the slogan "work hard, play hard," according to Acton.

The dual-intensives institutions' full-time undergraduate numbers are generally under 10,000 or, where there is a strong college system, up to around 12,000.

Cambridge's vice-chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, in his annual address last year, emphasized that maintaining a ceiling on its student numbers – presently 3,300 per year cohort – was essential to sustaining the superb undergraduate education delivered there.

Pioneered in the UK by Oxbridge, the University of St Andrews and Durham University and by the Ivy League in the US, institutions of this type combine the ability simultaneously to deliver research of the highest quality and to evoke the keenest student enthusiasm.

In the UK, most are or have been members of the 1994 Group, while a handful of their bedfellows, including Oxbridge, have long made up a minority – but the cream – of the Russell Group, Acton writes.

It is the dual-intensives, in particular those outside London, that dominate the upper echelons of the NSS and the THE Student Experience Survey. In this they tend to outperform the other family of UK research-intensives, the 13 so-called "big civics" established in the UK's major industrial cities that make up the bulk of the Russell Group.

Acton writes that these predominantly Victorian institutions have significantly larger undergraduate populations. The University of Nottingham has more than 21,000 such students, the University of Leeds more than 22,000, while the University of Manchester has passed the 26,000 mark.

I spent the first half of my career lecturing in two of them and have not been surprised, as the NSS shows year after year, that such institutions have more difficulty than do the dual-intensives in evoking student enthusiasm. Moreover, I recall a former vice-chancellor of another big civic lamenting what he called the "elephantine" slowness with which it could achieve cultural shifts of the kind needed, Acton writes.

11 6, 2013
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