As it looks to the future, LSE renews focus on teaching

In LSE’s latest vision for the future of the school, a key idea is familiar, Guest Contributor Scott Carpenter writes

As the London School of Economics (LSE) rolls out its 11-year vision for the future of the school, called LSE 2030, it is touting a reinvigorated commitment to the everyday job of teaching students.

“We’ll work in partnership with our students to find innovative ways of learning, creating and collaborating,” read the opening words of a page spelling out its top priority, “Educate for impact,” the policy that commits to rewarding excellent teaching.

The emphasis may be different this time, but the idea is not as fresh as it seems. In two previous visions for the future of the school, published in 2010 and 2015, LSE’s leadership set forth similar ideas about prioritising teaching alongside its more vaunted function, the school’s renowned academic research.

In 2010, LSE’s Strategic Plan 2010-15 vowed to carry on with recent reforms aimed at improving the quality of the school’s teaching. It had just inaugurated LSE100, its flagship course designed to steep undergraduates in an array of social science concepts. And the faculty was pressing ahead with dozens of recommendations made in a 2008 Teaching Task Force report, which sought to ensure teaching would be prioritised as highly as research.

Five years later, in the LSE Strategy 2020, Director Craig Calhoun lamented “educational performance and productivity inconsistent with our high aspirations and impressive performance in research” — a reference to sagging student satisfaction scores — as well as declining government funding. The solution? An assault on all fronts to improve teaching quality, notably by strengthening support for faculty and staff. The plan committed LSE to “building a core faculty committed to both education and research and not accepting a zero-sum trade-off between the two.”

And then there is LSE 2030. If one overarching idea lies at the heart of it, it is the “connected curriculum,” an argument that both the research as well as the education functions of a university mutually benefit when they overlap. The idea is expounded in a 156-page monograph by LSE’s Pro-Director for Education Dilly Fung in 2017 while she was still at University College London (UCL) in her previous post. Drawing on the “connected curriculum,” LSE 2030 calls for more “enquiry-based learning” — a model that relies more on direct student involvement than traditional teaching methods.

Still, as this review of the three strategic plans reveals, the goal of forging a closer union between the teaching and research sides of the school is hardly a new one. Even if the policy commitments of the two previous strategic plans differ, all three shared the same goal of narrowing the gap between LSE’s focus on research and its focus on teaching.

There is a good reason for this. Students have for years given LSE poor marks on its levels academic support compared to other areas, and teaching quality has stubbornly persisted as a problem area.

But in view of the failure of the two previous plans to deliver on vows to boost student satisfaction scores, the plans’ similarities could suggest that the path to LSE 2030’s success lies not in the vision it articulates but in its implementation and the willingness of the school’s leadership to make truly novel changes.

What specific commitments does each plan make?

LSE 2030

  • Pivot toward enquiry-based learning
  • Support excellent teaching; maximise time for teaching and research
  • Fund more student-led research, e.g. through LSE Change Makers
  • Provide more scholarships and support for PhDs, postdoctoral and early career researchers
  • Launch a digital Staff Hub and a digital Alumni Hub
  • Strengthen connections with policymakers and make new ones with the private sector
  • Develop “thought leadership,” including through LSE’s public lecture series

LSE Strategy 2020

  • Ensure teaching is guided by strong academic leadership, including by supporting Department Heads
  • Assess how the school rewards excellent teaching
  • Develop the newly established PhD Academy
  • Make sure LSE’s world-class research is underpinned by public outreach and cross-department collaboration
  • Find and grow revenue sources, including by boosting student numbers, connecting faculty to governments and businesses, and expanding ancillary activities like executive education

Strategic Plan 2010-15

  • Press on with recent reforms, including the new course LSE 100 and the dozens of recommendations in the Teaching Taskforce Report
  • Build greater recognition of teaching performance into academic career progression
  • Increase contact hours between students and staff, invest in new facilities and the school’s estate
  • Maintain funding for research and ensure that social sciences are adequately reflected in research rankings’ methodologies
  • Encourage LSE academics to connect with non-academic audiences

What does each plan say are its top priorities?

LSE 2030

  • Priority 1: Educate for impact. We’ll work in partnership with our students to find innovative ways of learning, creating and collaborating, supporting them to better understand and shape our rapidly changing world.”
  • “Priority 2: Research for the world. We will build on [our] reputational strengths and take the lead in securing and defining the future of social sciences across the globe.”
  • Priority 3: Develop LSE for everyone. We will invest in our community and enhance our services and infrastructure, so that we continue to attract the best and brightest, and enable every member of our community to excel.”

LSE Strategy 2020

  • Education. We will make major improvements in the quality of our educational programmes and the overall student experience at LSE, and develop opportunities for all of our talented students regardless of their background.”
  • Strengthening and supporting faculty and staff. We will continually improve faculty quality, research performance and intellectual innovation and enhance the quality of our professional service staff.”
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion. We will strengthen our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and take relevant action throughout the institution.”

Strategic Plan, 2010-15

  • Priority: teaching and student experience.” LSE will “continue to implement a major new initiative to significantly improve our teaching by cultivating and rewarding excellence and increasing contact between students and academic staff,” while ensuring that teaching is “supported by facilities and services of the highest order.”
  • “Priority: research.” LSE will make every effort to retain funding from external sources, and will seek to ensure that its specialist setup is reflected in the Research Excellence Framework (REF). And support a growing portfolio of research activities. (Summarised.)
  • “Priority: engagement.” “Bring[ing] academic expertise to bear on the problems of society,” LSE will encourage engagement here and around the world, including with non-academic audiences. (Summarised.)   

Past and present directorial views

Director Minouche Shafik (2017-present) on the LSE 2030 Strategy

“[W]hile much has changed, one thing remains constant: our commitment to the original vision of LSE, as ‘a community of people and ideas, founded to know the causes of things, for the betterment of society’.”

Director Craig Calhoun (2012-2016) on the LSE Strategy 2020

“In the midst of rapid change in higher education, a crucial priority is to ensure that our students have the benefit of great teaching and a rewarding educational experience. We are at work on this in all we do.”

Director Howard Davies (2003-2011) on the Strategic Plan 2010-15

“[O]ur top priorities remain to enhance the quality of the student experience here, and in particular our teaching and research, while continuing to make further headway in improving the condition of the School’s estate.”

Image courtesy of tomato.to

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