Repackaging Physics18 July 2011
The new Key Information Set (KIS) is a positive advance. By ensuring that all higher education institutions – including the new private providers who are to be encouraged to compete with established universities on price and quality – provide comparable information, a far better idea of what is on offer will be ensured. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has published a helpful mock-up of what the KIS could look like, summarising student satisfaction, graduate employment, tuition fees and teaching and assessment systems.
Of course, these are all performance indicators and, as with all performance indicators, they simplify and summarise in order to achieve comparability. And so we need to balance these overviews with an appreciation of the quality of university study, and what it means in students’ life histories as they shape up their decisions of where and what to study, enrol at university, and then graduate and move into work or further study. The publication of KIS performance indicators will give universities the opportunity of providing links to these profiled experiences.
Last week, a workshop organised by our colleagues in Physics showed how presenting the quality of learning and teaching should augment summary performance indicators. “Repackaging Physics” was part of the National HE STEM Programme and a drive by the Institute of Physics to highlight the value of university study. The present dearth of information was captured when the Institute of Physics asked 16-year olds what a person could do with a degree in Physics. There were only two answers: become a physics teacher, or become Stephen Hawking.
Ian Morrison, Richard Pilkington, Martin Dawson and Jenny Warburton gave the workshop a very good sense of how to turn this around. They have transformed the University of Salford’s Physics curriculum to combine high quality teaching with a real sense of Physics in the workforce, and of where a qualification in Physics can lead. The first year gives students a sound foundation in mathematics, physics and computing. This is followed in the senior years of the Honours programme with themes such as energy, nanotechnology, medical physics, and space technology. The curriculum’s structure focuses on developing interlocking sets of skills in analysis, in the developed abilities that employers require, and in the more generic transferrable skills that should distinguish a higher education qualification. To make sure that this happens, our academic staff are now joined by representatives from some fifteen employers.
How will we know we have succeeded? In general terms, the value of our Physics programme will be reflected in KIS indicators, such as student satisfaction and rates of employment in the months immediately after graduation. But a deep and comprehensive sense of the transformative value of time at university can only come from students’ own stories. As Martin Dawson put it in his presentation to our workshop last week, we will know we are making real progress when, instead of asking to be told the “right answer” by a lecturer, students repeat the sort of evaluative comment that one made to Martin in response to our new curriculum: “this has really helped me understand things that never occurred to me before”.
HEFCE: How the Key Information Set might be presented: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/learning/infohe/mock_kis.pdf
“Repackaging Physics”, Institute of Physics: http://www.iop.org/education/higher_education/stem/resources/file_44401.pdf
National HE STEM Programme: