Student-centred learning: not all about teaching?

Student-centred learning: not all about teaching?

Students go to university to learn, but do universities still mainly exist to pass on knowledge? Priorities have shifted, on every level. In a time when competition is fierce, it seems as though reputations take precedence. Professors feel the pressure to ‘publish or perish’, institutions are concerned with ranking, and even students are after more than just a degree. So how can we give them exactly that, and meet all other demands? Changing our method of delivery is a topic worth discussing.

In recent years, many of the conversations around higher education in Europe have touched upon the importance of teaching and learning from a student-centred perspective. While to many this sounds like re-inventing the wheel – after all, teaching students has been universities’ first and foremost mission – in reality this particular mission has slowly slipped down on the list of priorities for many institutions. The reasons are many and come from both universities and their environments.

First, the race for a high place in the national and international rankings triggered a focus on research, often at the expense of teaching: the best professors are given time away for publishing, there is less time for engaging with students and less money to pay professors who are good in teaching but not at research. Second, the funding cuts affecting many universities and the pressure to fundraise and exploit their assets created a new focus in certain institutions on the applied research and consultancies – the so called ‘third mission’. Third, additional new missions for universities seem to be constantly added by politicians and other interested parties, to include adult education and life-long learning, local and regional development, corporate social responsibility, etc., depending on the country and particular context.

In Europe the renewed interest in teaching has, to a large extent, been advocated by the European Student Union (ESU). Through the ESU’s work, student-focused teaching gained the attention of education ministers from the European Higher Education Area, who agree that it is important and should be a priority in their countries (Leuven 2009, Bucharest 2012). Student-centred learning (SCL) recognises and acknowledges the diversity of the student body and aims at using students’ prior knowledge and their individual background to involve them in the learning process. SCL does not see students as empty vessels to be filled, but rather as co-authors of the teaching and learning process, which ideally becomes customised to fit their particular needs.

Institutional implications

While at first glance SCL may just seem like a particular type of pedagogy without many implications outside the classroom, the reality is different. In the age of massification, when professors have to do more with less and the pressures to be competitive is very high for higher education institutions, SCL requires a re-calibration of institutional priorities, policies and practices. The idea that professors should spend more time trying to customise their teaching to the individual student is valuable but challenging if the system of academic recognition is based preponderantly on their research output. If faculty is rewarded for their research success and not for the quality of their teaching, the principles of SCL will be difficult to implement. At the national level, universities are often ranked and funded based on criteria that rarely include the quality of teaching. A change in national funding policies to reflect the commitment made by governments to SCL would be a significant step forward.

The move towards SCL would most likely require additional financial and human investments to cover the extra costs linked to setting up or expanding teacher support programmes, student support services and infrastructure (classrooms and common spaces to be adapted, e-learning resources, etc.) among others. However, these costs would arguably be recovered; the adoption of SCL is likely to increase the institutional quality, to bring more students and higher retention rates, and to increase the perceived value of the diploma in relation with employers.

What can be done right now?

Although having extra resources would help, SCL principles can be introduced right away by universities willing to focus once more on their teaching mission. To help universities evaluate their teaching policies and practices, the EU has funded two projects on the topic submitted by consortiums led by ESU. A Toolkit showing how institutions can start implementing SCL was put together in 2013, and a pool of experts from European universities is being created with the purpose of offering peer advice to universities that solicit it.

These two projects and several other national and international initiatives to promote student-centred teaching have started the conversation about the teaching mission of European universities in the era of massification. At present it seems that the push for student-centred teaching and learning comes from the bottom (the students) and the top (the policy makers), with the middle (the universities) left to decide the timing and level of implementing SCL. How and when it is implemented over the next few years will be interesting to watch but it is probably safe to bet that SCL is soon coming to a university near you.

Pusa Nastase is Senior Programme Manager at School of Public Policy of Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.