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16 April 2019

Halfway up the stairs: A progress report on the current Enhancement Theme in Scotland


Ailsa Crum
Head of Quality and Enhancement, QAA Scotland

Fans of A A Milne will understand that right here, halfway through the current Enhancement Theme in Scotland, is an ideal place to sit and consider the steps we've taken towards our goal of improving the student experience.

The Enhancement Themes enable Scottish higher education institutions to achieve more by working collaboratively than they could do individually. The Themes are outward-looking, learning from practice around the international community. They are future-focused to anticipate upcoming trends. They are inclusive, involving institutions, staff and students working together, sharing practice and generating new ideas.

The current Theme, Evidence for Enhancement: Improving the student experience, runs to summer 2020. It poses a number of questions for the Scottish sector:

  • What information is useful to help us identify and evaluate what we do well and what could be improved?
  • Do we have the right information?
  • Do we use the information we have in the best way possible?

There is certainly no shortage of data, but ensuring we have the most useful information to help support improvements to the student experience can be more challenging. For busy staff and students, understanding what the available data is telling us - especially when it appears contradictory - can be a real challenge.

Upskilling staff and students in data use has been a key element of the Theme so far. We have worked with university planners to produce a guide to navigating the data landscape, and created a monthly webinar series with a suite of expert hosts from inside and outside the Scottish sector, including Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam University. We are also funding a collaborative project for programme leaders to support their understanding of evidence.

For an Enhancement Theme to be successful, it must be owned by and permeate the sector. Our current Theme Leader is Professor Alyson Tobin (Vice Principal of Learning and Teaching at Edinburgh Napier University), taking up the reins from Professor Karl Leydecker (formerly of the University of Dundee) who launched the Theme. In addition, there are two deputy leads and a student lead.

The Theme works at three levels: institutional, collaborative clusters (which are, effectively inter-institutional projects) and all-sector. Every institution has a plan for the work they will undertake during the year in relation to the Theme - current topics include:

  • the nature of evidence
  • approaches to evaluation
  • staff upskilling and empowerment
  • learning analytics and dashboard development
  • quality assurance processes
  • student characteristics
  • student success, retention and employability
  • student engagement and belonging
  • learning space and curriculum development
  • digital technology, learning, teaching and assessment.

This year QAA Scotland is supporting six collaborative clusters involving groups of institutions working together on projects they scope and progress covering:

  • support for Programme Leaders
  • learning analytics
  • creative disciplines
  • sense of belonging and online toolkit
  • measuring beyond metrics
  • graduate employment.

Student engagement is one of three core areas of focus across the Theme. Students have equal representation on the Theme Leaders' Group at which all 19 Scottish institutions are represented by a staff and a student member. A substantial student-led project is supported and has delivered a suite of materials including a set of principles for responding to the student voice, an international scan of practice and a set of activity cards which can be used by student associations and staff alike. Demand for the cards has been very high across the Scottish sector and further afield including Sri Lanka.

The Enhancement Themes continue to attract considerable interest outside the UK. During the current Theme alone, colleagues from Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands have visited to find out more. South Africa and, more recently, New Zealand have adopted their own versions of the Enhancement Themes to support culture change around the student learning experience in their universities. 

So the Theme is ambitious, but how will we know if we've really improved the student experience as the current Theme title proclaims? A A Milne's poem concludes that halfway up the stairs 'isn't really anywhere…it's somewhere else instead'. While there are often unintended benefits to enhancing practice, we will have a clear view of our achievements thanks to a systematic evaluation of impact with the support of Liz Thomas Associates. We'll be clear where we sit and the extent to which we really have improved the student experience with our focus on evidence for enhancement.

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