Pro-Vice-Chancellor and SU Undergraduate Academic Officer discuss education

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Palatinate spoke to Professor Tony Fawcett, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, and Will Brown, Durham Students’ Union’s (SU) Undergraduate Academic Officer, about education at Durham University.

Both men have a responsibility for education: Prof Fawcett oversees all parts of the University that work to educate, what he calls the “engine that makes the University run”, whilst Mr Brown was elected by students to ensure the University’s education provision is aligned with student opinion.

They meet with each other regularly, and their primary collaboration this year has been on expanding ways of collecting student feedback on education. “We’ve been able to immediately identify common priorities,” Mr Brown said, “the Student Voice Review was identified within 10 minutes of meeting [Prof Fawcett].”

The Student Voice Review inspired a shift of student voice that was more focused on “informal mechanisms” of feedback, and on exchanging best practices between departments. Currently, student voice is mostly reliant on course reps, most of which are not actually elected as intended.

However, “students put a lot more emphasis on informal mechanisms for student voice,” Mr Brown explained, saying students are more likely to go to their academic advisers or module leaders. Despite this, a survey of Heads of Departments found that “almost everyone restricted itself to ‘we have a course rep system’” as their only form of student voice.

“Some departments have got it really well, there are some fantastic examples and [we had] some really enthusiastic responses from the student reps, but other departments haven’t got it quite right yet,” Prof Fawcett said. The two have been asking departments to try out more localised methods of student voice, which, to Prof Fawcett, “we think are the parts we’re a bit missing in places.”

“We’ve been able to immediately identify common priorities”

William Brown

“It’s about working to ensure that how the University understands student voice matches how students understand student voice,” Mr Brown said.

This renewed focus on student voice comes as this academic year is the first for a while without problems that have interrupted student’s education, like the pandemic or industrial action. Mr Brown sees this as an opportunity to “capitalise on” to “identify common priorities” between the University and students. “We’re not putting out so many fires which allows for easier introspection.”

A point where student voice has become increasingly prevalent was with the confusion surrounding extensions earlier this year. Palatinate reported that students faced “stress” and “uncertainty” over being unaware of the move to a common extensions system and process, which happened at the same time that Disability Support Plans were being migrated to student support officers. Prof Fawcett acknowledged that the University’s attempts to publicise the changes to the process “clearly didn’t hit”. “We tried really hard and it just didn’t land,” he said.

Prof Fawcett explained that the changes were part of the University creating a common extensions system after, during Covid-19, “the idea of extensions became almost an automatic thing.”

“We would all recognise that to plan your work and to meet deadlines is a key skill. You can’t go into the workplace and ask for an extension every time there’s a piece of work that needs to be done. So we need to move back to extensions only in exceptional circumstances.”

Previously, departments granted their own extensions. This system has been centralised, as “we saw the same sorts of requests were getting very different responses from [different] departments,” Prof Fawcett said. “We needed to make sure that people who need an extension for good reason get one and that we’ve got more consistency.”

Prof Fawcett praised the work of Mr Brown and the SU for their “academic representation” in communicating the issues students were facing with the University. As Mr Brown said, “the SU was quite quick […] and quite robust in our challenge,” acting “constructively” by talking to course reps and sending a list of FAQs the University should break down.

Another point this past year where the SU challenged the University was during the Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB), when the SU submitted a collective complaint of 145 students over the impact the MAB had. “We more than doubled the number of complaints received by the University,” Mr Brown explained. These complains were investigated individually as the circumstances each student faced was unique.

“We need to make sure that we are using AI positively in teaching, learning and assessment”

Prof Tony Fawcett

Prof Fawcett said that his priority during the MAB was to “try and ensure that students could progress the best they could”.

Universities diverged in their response: some awarded degrees without having all the final marks, whilst Durham awarded interim degrees for finalists in this case, and continuing allowed students to progress to the next year of study without having all their marks. For Prof Fawcett, this decision was based on “the balance of academic standards and supporting students.”

For those who were progressing, the University would cover all living expenses and course fees if you failed your resits for the previous year after having studied the next year. Prof Fawcett explained that this was out of concerns that “we didn’t want to have students who have been here for a year in good faith”.

Finalists were given interim degrees, based on all the available evidence “to say, look, as far as we’re concerned the student’s got a guaranteed degree”, and enable them “get into their MSc, MA courses or into jobs [… and] international student visas”.

“I think we would probably try and go down the same [interim degrees] route again,” Prof Fawcett said, “as it gives me […] the confidence that we’ve done the right thing by academic standards”. As, when students had most of their marks back, the University found that the interim degree processing was “99.7-99.9% accurate.”

Mr Brown said he’d found the degree outcome data “very convincing”, and that in subsequent final marking for degrees “there was no compromise on quality assurance”. His approach to the MAB was to say “we can’t stop this […] the important thing is that we know that students are supported in the short term”.

A more long term challenge to universities’ approaches to teaching and to marking and assessment across the whole sector has been generative artificial intelligence (AI), which has rapidly developed in the past few years. Whilst some universities enacted outright bans on AI, last year, Durham said that it would not use Turnitin’s ChatGPT detection system because of concerns about the accuracy of this system and the negative effects on students should they be wrongly accused of this.

University boardrooms are agog over the pros and cons of AI, with many taking divergent approaches. Durham instead has embraced it, encouraging departments to tailor-make policies to harness its potential within disciplines.

“My view on [AI] is that you’ll be getting jobs where you’re using AI on a daily basis,” said Prof Fawcett, “so we need to make sure that we are using AI positively in learning, teaching and assessment.”

“I think we’ve laid the foundations this year for better academic representation”

Will Brown

He continued to say that universities should “change and adapt to [AI], not be worried about it, but embrace it where it’s positive and make sure that we are still educating students.”

One place where Prof Fawcett recognised the need for improvement in the University was social inclusion. He said, “we do extremely well when students are here. But, we’ve got more difficulties in getting students from different backgrounds accessing the University.”

This comes after Durham ranked last for social inclusion out of all higher education institutions ranked by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide. Durham are taking steps to tackle this, as part of their regulatory requirements to ensure equalities of opportunities for people entering the University. This is mainly articulated through the Access and Participation Plan, which will be refreshed this year.

The new plan aspires for the University to have “a different balance of community”, whilst maintaining “very high academic standards,” Prof Fawcett said. Mr Brown explained that students from “a range of disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds” were consulted in a student advisory board on this process.

However, the University is very proud of their record on graduate prospects. “We’re extremely proud of our graduate outcome figures,” Prof Fawcett said. Currently, 89% of UK or EU leavers were in work or further study fifteen months after graduating, and the University ranks 50th in the world in terms of employer reputation.

Mr Brown added, “we’re one of the Universities that put most into student support.” Palatinate previously reported that the Durham Grant, which was expanded to support more middle-income families this year, is one of the more generous schemes like this in the UK.

Prof Fawcett said that the supporting students is a major priority for the University, including “making sure that the Durham Grant Scheme is as generous as we can make it.”

Mr Brown concurred, saying that “we’re working closely with the University to make sure that they put a lot of money into cost of living support.”

In summary, Mr Brown saw this year as a place for growth: “I think we’ve laid the foundations this year for better academic representation.” Pointing to the SU officer restructure, the student voice review, and working with course reps, he said, “I’m very happy to have worked on [these], unglamorous though it may be.”


One thought on “Pro-Vice-Chancellor and SU Undergraduate Academic Officer discuss education

  • Cool post! The focus on improving student feedback mechanisms at Durham University, as discussed by Professor Fawcett and Mr Brown, highlights a progressive step towards improving the quality of education.


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