Open the Door to Learning ; UNIVERSITIES ++ Are Universities Neglecting Teaching? Many Critics Think So. and Now Even Harvard Is Introducing Reform. Lucy Hodges Reports

By Hodges, Lucy | The Independent (London, England), May 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Open the Door to Learning ; UNIVERSITIES ++ Are Universities Neglecting Teaching? Many Critics Think So. and Now Even Harvard Is Introducing Reform. Lucy Hodges Reports


Hodges, Lucy, The Independent (London, England)


Harvard, the world's richest university, wants to improve its undergraduate teaching. Like other Ivy League universities in the United States, Harvard charges more than $30,000 ([pound]15,000) a year in tuition but its academics concentrate on research rather than teaching because it confers status.

According to a 2005 survey, Harvard students are less satisfied with their education than students at other top universities in the US. Problems lie with staff availability and the quality of instruction.

"Too large a fraction of our teaching is in the hands of graduate students," the former Harvard president Larry Summers said. "Too much of it takes place in large lectures, where faculty members don't know students' names. And too little involves active learning, whether it's in a laboratory, a debate in a class, or a seminar dialogue."

Last year, Harvard set up a task force to investigate. A subsequent report recommended big changes, including paying academics more for good teaching and encouraging them to sit in on one another's classes. Whether these changes will happen is questionable, according to insiders. In such a conservative institution, it will require a lot of commitment.

Harvard's academics are still expected to place a lot of emphasis on research, but there is now hope that more attention will be paid to teaching.

"Some of us would say that Harvard is late in this game," says Professor Roger Brown, the vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent Uni- versity. "That it is waking up to the fact that students are being short-changed is significant.

"If somewhere this prestigious feels that it has to do something to redress the balance, perhaps there is a lesson for our research- intensive universities."

The Harvard reforms were described at a recent conference organised by the Southampton universities, as well as the Economic and Social Research Council, the Higher Education Academy, and the Centre for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning. This was the second such conference on the fraught subject of teaching versus research. Academics from all over the world - Australia, Canada, Africa, New Zealand, the US and Germany - were present, suggesting that this a major issue internationally. "There is increasing recognition that, generally speaking, inquiry-based learning can be very beneficial," Brown says. "To create these conditions and work against the academic grain is tough."

Similar charges to those levelled against Harvard are made against research-intensive universities in the United Kingdom - but things are changing in the system as a whole. In new universities, such as Coventry, greater efforts have been made to engage students' interests by getting them to explore subjects for themselves rather than inculcate learning through the more traditional lectures and seminars.

Although you could argue that an exploratory approach to learning dates from the Greek thinker Socrates, the new interest in the subject goes back about 20 years and is a response to the gap that has opened up between teaching and research in universities, with the two being funded separately, and with some universities gaining much more money from research than others.

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Open the Door to Learning ; UNIVERSITIES ++ Are Universities Neglecting Teaching? Many Critics Think So. and Now Even Harvard Is Introducing Reform. Lucy Hodges Reports
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