Professor of Higher Education at the University of Bergen, Norway.
Professor of Education, the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration, Bergen, Norway.
Presentation at FINHEEC’s seminar: Centres of Excellence in University Education, 24-25 February 2009, Helsinki, Finland
The University of Bergen,
Department of Education,
First of all – let me take this opportunity to say thank you to FINHEEC for inviting me to be part of the international panel working together with national, Finnish representatives evaluating applicants to be selected as Centres of excellence in Finnish university education. During this process I have been introduced to a very interesting and inspiring landscape. As part of this process, and during our site visits, I have met many enthusiastic, professional and caring individuals and learning communities. This has all been very inspiring for me, and I feel that I have learned very much. I have also learned to know Finland, its geography and history, somewhat better than I did before. I certainly will try to keep contact in the future.
In this presentation I would like to focus on three main points:
A. some comments related to the establishment of centres of excellence in teaching/centres of excellence in university education
B. move on to a description of Finnish universities as I - and the international committee – view the quality in Finnish university education
C. some concluding remarks related to how and what one should look for when deciding candidates to be designated as centres for excellence
A. The establishment of centres of excellence
In this first part of my presentation, I would like to focus on three different aspects:
A. the notion of a “centre” of excellence
B. the notion of excellence
C. and, finally, the notion of university education
A. The notion of centre of excellence
What is - or can be – understood by “CENTRE”?
In my mind this may be taken to mean one of several things:
1. CENTRE - as a new organisational and administrative unit within an existing institution, faculty or department with its own leader/leadership, its own administrative structure and routines, and staffed by experts who are either selected or recruited based on their personal merits. Or across institutions like a national graduate school. Some challenges:
a. may be seen as a competitor to existing units and as a threat (stealing resources – getting more funding, etc)
b. more bureaucracy – with unclear connections to existing unit
Implications: resources being spent on administration, resulting in greater distance between administration and teaching staff, AND – with less money/resources being spent on existing offers or to develop an existing offer within an existing structure.
Looking at the evaluation report published (in 2008) by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, in which it discusses some possible explanations why Sweden – in its second round of Centres of Excellence in Higher Education – received so few (4) applicants, the question of funding comes up as a very important one. “… a quality-based resource allocation system is currently under discussion in Sweden. The prospect of its implications may have induced institutions to hold back in the anticipation that over the next few years, recognition of excellence will have consequences for funding” (Högskoleverket, 2008, p. 7).
2. CENTRE – as a formal cooperation between different, existing units within or across institutions. Cooperation as to the planning, development, and implementation of courses, modules or teaching programmes – new or existing. E.g. formalised cooperation between a medical school and a school of philosophy and/or a school of psychology, using an existing structure – with the possible strengthening of some administrative resources. May even be a formalised cooperation between e.g. a school of medicine and a staff development unit (e.g. cooperation towards the development of a research based approach to teaching and learning). OR, it may even be a formalised cooperation between a staff development unit and one or more other units within or across institution(s).
Implications: a) an advantage over the above in that it does not imply a new organisational structure with more administration. B) may be a good way of formalising – and mirroring - cooperative efforts that may already exist in more informal ways, rendering a more official and approved status to the kind of work that is carried out.
3. CENTRE – like we find it today – in Sweden, in Finland, and – for the most part – in England. Namely a faculty, a department, or an existing unit within a department which has proved itself towards a set of specified criteria.
Challenge: I must admit that I – for one – see this as a bit problematic. In my mind, a centre denotes something relatively small, something “focussed” and “sharpened”, something secluded – I am searching for the correct words here! - a place of expertise and recognition, some middle point towards which others seek. Hence, I find it a bit difficult to see how a whole faculty may be called a centre. Even in a broader – let’s say national – perspective, and even if no other faculty, department or unit within the same institution was to be given the same status! In cases where a faculty applies for a position or status as centre of excellence, it may experience difficulties both in describing its specific focus, and in convincing an outside world – like an evaluation team! – why it should be viewed as a centre. This is in fact what was seen in the evaluation process in Finland. In most cases where the applicant was a larger unit like a faculty, the application was rather unfocussed, and more of a description of its – more or less - standard teaching programme and teaching activities. (This may, of course, be explained on the basis that nothing excellent really took place there!).
B. The notion of excellence
What is excellence – what should we look for when deciding what is excellent?
Let’s have a look at the reflections offered by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education;
“It cannot be stressed too strongly that institutions themselves have to prove their excellence in the application. Not only must they describe their success factors, but also analyse and systematically verify them” (Högskoleverket, 2008, p. 7)
“Thus, an application which fails to convince due to lack of evidence will not be reviewed further” (Högskoleverket, 2008, p. 7).
There is, in other words, an emphasis on measurables, on outputs normally associated with quality. This is made very explicit in the guidelines for evaluation;
“1. The teaching unit must have an organisational structure, a quality assurance system and an infrastructure that function exceptionally well.
2. The teaching unit must be governed by a competent management, administration and by committed teachers with relevant knowledge, experiences and abilities” (Op.cit. p. 23).
And so on. All the time emphasising qualities that have been established and already are in place.
In other words; a unit in which many/some students fail, where drop-out rate is moderate/high, and where students evaluations of teaching and teachers are not always the best, will not stand a chance? Irrespective of input quality, culture, history, and ongoing work towards improvement? This is, in fact, a conclusion which readily poses itself when reading the Swedish National Agency’s report. Here it is stated:
“In total, four applications were submitted by four institutions. The second round saw a considerable drop in the number of applications. This decline might be explained by several factors: The results of the first round showed that standards were set very high: the requirements of letters of support from the Vice-Chancellors clearly stating why the unit was nominated discouraged poorly-prepared applications…” (Högskoleverket, 2008, p. 7).
Perhaps we do well in making a distinction between centres OF excellence, and centres FOR excellence?
The distinction may prove to be much more profound than just a difference in choice of words. Where it may be claimed that the term “Centres OF excellence” readily lends itself to an understanding of a unit that has reached its – or some official stated – goals (and at this point I am not even trying to open the door towards a discussion of “quality”) – the term “Centre FOR excellence” bears with it an understanding of a unit that may be said to be on the road towards something qualitative different and better.
Perhaps this is why one in England – at some point in the planning process – changed the name of its centres from Centres of excellence in teaching and learning, to Centres for excellence in teaching and learning? As Gosling and Hannan (2007) note, this marked a significant shift in approach “…because it signalled that the centres were not only being recognised for the excellence already achieved, but they ‘should also represent a future investment to develop good practice further for the benefit of students and for quality enhancement in the sector more generally’. The invitation to bid for funds did not specify any criteria for excellence. It explicitly rejected the notion of there being an ‘absolute’ or ‘gold standard’ notion of excellence” (Op.cit. p. 636).
However, parallel to my comments concerning the Swedish situation, Gosling and Hannan (2007), after having interviewed 24 staff involved in 25 bids – both successful and rejected – towards Centre for excellence in teaching and learning, report that:
“…the examples of excellence in teaching to be found in the CETLs were likely to be biased in two ways; first, towards those types of excellence which lent themselves to being developed in a project form rather than as aspects of a general culture of a university or a department, … , and second, towards those behaviours which had already received approval through existing reward mechanisms that were assumed to provide tangible evidence of excellence” (Op.cit. p. 638).
I would like to suggest that the difference in names or labels may disclose a more fundamental distinction in attitude or understanding as to what learning and knowledge are, and thereby what higher education institutions are. AND, I would like to add; it is important that this distinction is made explicit and discussed.
A centre OF excellence – having proved itself towards a set of precisely defined outcomes/measureables may, I would like to suggest, show to be examples of what we might label LEVEL I institutions. LEVEL I institutions are typical in that focus is on:
- WHAT students are
- WHAT professors are
- WHAT knowledge is
- WHAT higher education institutions historically have been and are,
They might, furthermore, be described as being “teaching- and teacher oriented” and would tend to have a person oriented and individualistic set of explanations towards issues related to success and failure.
An idea of centres, institutions, and behaviours FOR excellence will, on the other hand, more readily be associated with what we might label LEVEL II institutions. LEVEL II institutions are typical in that focus is on:
- HOW students learn
- HOW professors act (in order to assist student’s understanding)
- HOW knowledge develops
- HOW societal needs/demands inspire the development of Higher Education institutions.
Such institutions are typical in that they are “learner and learning oriented”, and would seek explanations for success and failure in the learning environment of which teaching is but one part.
Within the English context, focus quite clearly has been on issues related to the latter. The CETL programme is an investment of some £315 millions over five years from 2005-2010. 74 centres receive funding, and according to the Higher Education Funding Council of England:
“The purpose of CETL is to reward excellent teaching practice and to invest in that practice further in order to increase and deepen its impact across a wider teaching and learning community” (HEFCE, 2008, p. 4).
This sounds most convincing and, one might add, looks very good on paper. However, listening to the voices from the evaluation report much is still to be wished for in this respect. The positive effects of the CETLs are often obvious in their home institution but the wider engagement and the effect they have across the sector is more uncertain. As stated in the report:
“At this stage, many CETLs have had little or no effect on institutional practice outside the immediate CETL boundaries” (HEFCE, 2008, p. 6). There may be several explanations for this lack of engagement. The evaluation was conducted very early into the process, and it takes time for ideas and practices to disseminate and to be accepted elsewhere. Especially if here is no explicit dissemination or engagement strategy. Besides, universities are highly competitive organisations, and bidding for funds and establishing oneself as a centre for excellence is a competition! Like in most other competitions, the competitors do well in keeping their cards to themselves. Especially if there is a possibility of a second round! One way of solving this is to develop an explicit engagement strategy and to make sure that dissemination of best practices is economically rewarding. But than again, as Gibbs and his colleagues have shown (2000), higher education institutions have, traditionally, not had much focus on developing or formulating, strategies for teaching and learning. The development and implementation of a learning and teaching strategy require firm, clear and visible leadership and management.
Turning our attention back to the Finnish situation, we find examples of both types of institutions. In some cases, units that had had a status as a centre of excellence, were unsuccessful this time. They portrayed a picture of themselves as – once and for all – having reached a standard of excellence, whereas the evaluation team found that much was to be asked for in terms of teaching and assessment procedures, strategies for handling drop-outs, internationalisation, phd-supervision, and the like.
C. The notion of university education
Education is more than teaching. An institution may take great pride in having excellent teachers – as this may be documented by student’s evaluations – but this does not necessarily mean that much learning takes place, or that students learn what one wishes them to learn. According to Kreber (2002), one may make a distinction between excellent teachers/teaching, expert teachers/teaching and scholars of teaching/scholarly teaching. Scholars of teaching are both excellent teachers – celebrated by their students – and expert teachers – indulging in focussed reflection about teaching. But they are more:
“Scholars of teaching not only teach well and can demonstrate or share effective practices with colleagues, they also know more about teaching. In doing so they draw on formal and personal sources of knowledge construction about teaching, effectively combine this with their knowledge of the discipline to construct pedagogical content knowledge, continuously further this knowledge through self-regulated learning processes, and validate their knowledge through peer-review” (Op.cit., p. 18).
In other words, scholars of teaching make their knowledge public. One way of making this knowledge public is to implement it in the design of courses. Course design, - taking into consideration different factors important to understanding and deep learning – is one very central aspect of education. And here I am happy to say that Finland and Finnish higher education has taken a lead position, evidenced by the Core Curriculum Reform, and the work carried out by Asko Karjalainen and his associates at the University of Oulu (Karjalainen et al., 2008).
There is a message in this: for those of you – representatives of countries that are planning to do what Finland has done – the name of the child is important! A Centre for excellence in higher education is something very different (or should be!) from a Centre of excellence in university teaching.
B. The quality in Finnish university education
Finland has a 10-year history of Centres of excellence in university education. And they are called Centres OF excellence. Based on what I have just said, there is a need to look at this in more detail. What is it that FINHEEC and the Ministry of education actually say about this?
The international panel was informed of the Ministry’s decision to allocate performance-based funding for the period 2010-2012 in the form of centres of excellence in university education. A set of content areas and criteria were defined, but we – the evaluators – were explicitly instructed that the set of criteria …”should be used flexibly to ensure the objectivity of the evaluation, not as a set of absolute ‘gauges’. … The aim is to find real performance quality…” This was also underlined in the information given to potential applicants, were it was said that: “… the unit is requested to describe its good practices as concretely as possible.” Emphasis is, in other words, on practices and not so much/only on results/quantitative outcomes. FINHEEC asked the applicants to describe their practices in 5 content areas:
- mission of the unit
- programme and course design
- delivery of education
- continual development
Mission of the unit
How does the unit define its role and significance of its own educational mission as part of the academic community and as part of the overall mission of the university? How does the work community as a whole support this educational mission and how does the unit see to the appropriate use and development of the available resources?
Programme and course design
How degrees are put together and how research and teaching in the unit is interlinked. How lifelong learning and labour market is taken into account in the degrees.
Delivery of education
A description of teaching methods; how they are chosen and applied. Assessment procedures and rational for choosing particular assessment procedures. How are teaching and assessment methods and work mutually supportive?
A description of qualitative and quantitative outputs. Qualitative outputs mean the usefulness of students’ knowledge: how does it meet the objectives set? Is learning enhancing the knowledge in the field?
A description of procedures used to identify critical points in education and curriculum. How are different aspects related to teaching and learning identified developed? Which developmental projects is the unit involved in or planning in order to enhance the quality of education?
What is evident from this list is that emphasis is on processes, ideas, activities, plans, and structures directed at improving teaching and learning, more than on numbers, grades, satisfaction rates, and figures of what might be proof of quality.
This is important. We need to look beyond these very rude and simplistic facts, simply because they do not necessarily say much about the quality of the teaching and learning environment. Focussing on the quantitative outputs of lets say the Department of Educational Sciences and Teacher Education at the University of Oulu would tell us very little, knowing what we do about the intake quality. To put it bluntly; one would really have to put much effort into creating a hostile environment in order to secure large dropout figures, or a high number of failures, knowing that only 10% of the applicants – the best of the best – are accepted! As we all know, the application of this Department was successful and it has been designated as a centre of excellence for the coming period. In its report, the evaluation team underlines the cooperative, flexible, and student- and learning centred environment found at this department. It has taken the Bologna process as an opportunity to reform its educational programme, inviting external expertise in its discussions, and performing research on its own educational practice. The results of this research have had consequences for its own teaching and assessment practices. Students are actively involved, both in giving feedback on teaching and assessment procedures, as participants in research, and as legitimate partners in the development of the learning community.
Looking at the 10 successful applicants, some common features emerge:
1. curriculum reform that transcends programme headings and labels. Not just old wine in new bottles. In other words: real changes in curriculum, structure of programmes, and in teaching- and assessment methods – guided by an understanding of what promotes learning
2. a large proportion of the academic staff has undertaken courses in university pedagogics, often together as a collegium. This does not only give evidence of an interest in teaching and in student learning. It also signals a certain degree of confidence and trust in the importance of university pedagogics and staff development. A kind of confidence and trust not always found within higher education
3. the units quite typically have invited other parties – like alumni and external stakeholders - to take part in their discussions. The same is true of students. Students have played an active part in discussions, developments, and research on issues related to teaching and learning within the unit
4. the units share what we could call a research based approach to teaching and learning within their own unit. One very good example of this is the Department of Computer Sciences and Engineering at Helsinki University of Technology. Here one has established its own educational research group. The research activities of this group is typically focused on issued related to its own educational programme, resulting in information – e.g. related to student drop out – that may be of direct importance to the programme and to other institutions. (e.g. Kinnunen & Malmi, 2006).
5. The units are not blind to, but demonstrate an active engagement as far as challenges related to their own educational programme is concerned. E.g.:
1. challenges related to drop out
2. supervision of master and phd students (in some cases the mean duration of study was quite high, and the contact between institution and phd students too loose)
3. assessment methods and quality of teaching
4. coordination of teaching and learning activities
5. course design – to avoid work overload and superficial learning
6. mean duration of study (partly related to the attractiveness of candidates – getting job offers before they finish their degrees).
In all units there exists openness with regards to existing and possible future challenges, and they show a proactive attitude towards these challenges. Such an attitude is, one may add, one necessary precondition for organisational learning. And, a necessary first step towards sharing best practices with others.
I am not an expert on Finland, its culture and its history. However, I ask myself: are the above expressions of something typical of Finland and Finnish higher education? Lending support from the writings of Jussi Välimaa (2004) and Hannu Simola (2007), I tend to think that they are.
According to Välimaa, universities and higher education have, historically, been considered important aspects of the development of the nation and the nation state. “The national university was politically and culturally an important locus in the making of a Finnish national identity. It is therefore probable that this social role of university has strengthened the high social status that universities in particular and higher education degrees in general enjoy in Finnish society” (Op.cit., p. 36). He goes on to show how the expansion of Finnish higher education between 1950 and 1990 meant establishing higher education institutions all over the country with massification, but also localisation of higher education as a result. The localisation of higher education institutions has promoted regional development, and today these institutions are defined as “engines” of development within their regions. Today approximately 70% of the younger generations aim at a higher education degree.
During the period of expansion higher education institutions – unlike the situation in many other European countries – received large increases in their basic resources. Public funding provided by the Ministry of Education dropped significantly as Finland experienced an economic recession during the 1990-ties. However, during the same period external funding from both private and public sources grew fivefold. One consequence of this is, as I see it, that Finish higher education has attuned itself to societal and industrial needs, and that one has had to learn to cooperate with different external stakeholders in ways that have been productive for both parties.
D. What to look for when choosing candidates for Centres for excellence?
So, how and what should one look for when deciding who should be designated as centres for excellence in university education?
First, a few words on how. Bearing in mind what has already been mentioned about universities being highly competitive institutions, and in order to avoid any discussion as to objectivity, I very much favour a process in which an international team is asked to do a pre-selection. A pre-selection that is followed by a process in which national experts join the international team, much as the case has been this time in Finland. I also think that site visits are important. How such site visits best should be conducted – for example who should be invited to take part in interviews - is, however, an open question.
Once a decision has been reached and a unit has been pre-selected as a possible candidate, I would strongly recommend that emphasis is put on how well a unit is able to engage in inter-institutional practices. For this reason, it is important that an explicit engagement strategy is developed. In order to make sure that such a strategy becomes successful, some monetary incentives should be put into it.
In my mind, a second prerequisite is that the unit is actively researching questions related to its own educational programme and teaching- and learning practices. This relies heavily on the management and leadership of the unit. Just as we have witnessed it as we have paid our visits to the different institutions across Finland.
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