An interview with...

BILT Broadcast episode 16: Meet the PVC-Education, Prof Tansy Jessop (Special Edition)

In this special edition episode, BILT’s Amy Palmer interviews the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education at the University of Bristol, Professor Tansy Jessop, who shares her first impressions of Bristol, the work she has done so far and what she hopes to achieve over the next few years.


00:00:00 Amy Palmer 

Hi everyone, welcome back to the BILT Broadcast podcast. Today’s episode is episode 16 and we have a really special episode. 

Today we are joined by Professor Tansy Jessop. The Pro vice Chancellor for education and Tansy has really, kindly said that she will join us and share some of her experiences in Bristol so far, so tansy it would be really great if you could just. Introduce yourself and give a bit of a background as you know to your career. 

00:00:29 Tansy Jessop 

Thanks very much Amy. It’s great to be with you on this podcast, BILT podcast, my first ever podcast it’s really exciting. Yeah, I’m in relation to my background you can hear I’m South African, so I grew up in South Africa and I started my career as a secondary school teacher, I taught history and English, and a bit of Latin. 

And then when I came to the UK and did a PhD, I got really interested in teacher development. 

So I worked with rural primary teachers and thinking about how teachers actually grow and develop in the profession and get excited about their teaching. 

00:01:05 Tansy Jessop 

My own university career I probably only have about 3 or 4 memorable lectures or seminars that stick in my mind out of, you know, many degrees, many universities. 

And I guess I’m really interested in how we make our teaching memorable, powerful and impactful. 

So I think, I think there’s quite a lot of wasted time that doesn’t actually connect with students, so I’m excited about that. 

In the UK I’ve worked in two universities. 

I worked at Winchester University, which is sort of cathedrals group, small, boutique, a university which is quite externally facing given its smallness and launched a lot of really interesting projects. 

It’s where I got my first main career break, which was around transforming the experience of students through assessment, the TESTA project and got to meet Graham Gibbs through it and he really became my mentor. 

So for me, Winchester has been a springboard for lots of interesting and exciting projects. We also had a really interesting student engagement project called React which we ran, which was fab. 

00:02:10 Tansy Jessop 

So I worked there and then for the last three years before coming to Bristol I worked at Solent University which is, you know completely different from Bristol in the sense that it’s applied innovative, new, not, you know pockets of good research but not pervasive research. A much more applied university with a maritime school and you know all sorts of new kinds of courses and you know not a top tier university in the traditional sense, but really creative and exciting and there we did. 

We rolled out a curriculum framework which I found a fascinating process. 

00:02:47 Tansy Jessop 

So coming to Bristol, what’s different about Bristol? That’s your next question isn’t it! (laughter) 

00:02:51 Amy Palmer 

(laughter) Yeah! You’ve jumped the gun there! 

00:02:55 Tansy Jessop 

I suppose for me what’s been really exciting about Bristol is the sense that in this research-intensive university there is a a culture of being quite alternative. I think sometimes. 

00:03:11 Amy Palmer 

In what sense alternative? 

00:03:11 Tansy Jessop 

Well sort of alternative in the sense of quite leading edge around sustainability, around thinking about green agendas, political agendas. 

Bristol being a city that thrums with the alternative in the music scene and you know, so culturally Bristol University on the one hand is quite funky and alternative. On the other hand, it’s, It’s got decades of quite traditional approaches, and you know, there’s a sense in which it’s quite a long stay University, there’re lots of people who’ve been around a long time. 

Yeah, and there’s a sense of sedimentation as well as funkiness, so you know it’s quite an interesting place to be, because on the one hand it’s got rich foundations and cornerstones that are you know, built on tradition, on the other hand, it’s got this incredible alternative culture, so I find that really exciting for me as a as an educationist I find I’m pushing on an open door. 

There’s a sense in which there’s a real vision, and grip around getting. 

I mean in one sense it’s about parity between research and teaching and in another sense it’s just getting a culture of excitement around learning and teaching. 

00:04:23 Tansy Jessop 

It began with your organization with the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching, and the Sense that BILT has started to build up a lot of capital around teaching and learning. And you know, we’re now bringing in the staff development to BILT so you know the CREATE team and I think there’s a real march towards culture change around learning and teaching around education. 

I think that’s exciting. 

One of the exciting things about Bristol is the research rich and research-intensive environment. Because I think there’s a really interesting piece around how we join up research and teaching instead of, you know, compete for space. 

I think the research rich environment must lead to a much deeper engagement for students around doing research, being curious, being stimulated and we’ve got to try and help. Bring that about and not be a research-intensive university where people research minuter areas of their discipline and then teach them endlessly, but where we invite students into a partnership by research, I think that’s the excitement for me. 

00:05:25 Amy Palmer 

Yeah, I think that’s definitely. 

I’m noticing that more and there’s a real disparity across the different faculties and students that feel that they are undertaking research as part of their degree as well. We’ve just had the the BCUR, the British Conference for Undergraduate Research applications come in and there are about four times as many Life Sciences applications as there are from Arts. 

00:05:46 Tansy Jessop 

How interesting, how interesting. 

00:05:48 Amy Palmer 

And it’s just because the students, they don’t see what they’re doing is research as much in the same way. So, I think it’s a lot about. Just voicing, you know and bringing the dialogue about what they’re doing into it. 

00:05:58 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, I noticed that when your student fellow spoke on the panel at Education Committee, Emily spoke and she said the thing about Art students is they don’t know they’re doing research when they are doing it, you know, so it’s making the tacit explicit in terms of their experience as researchers and helping people maybe, in the Faculty of Arts, where they’re not such tight confines around research methods, begin to articulate what it looks like in their discipline, yeah? 

00:06:26 Amy Palmer 

Exactly one one student at one of the BCUR workshops said ‘I don’t have a methodology I just do reading.’ 

So, I think it is happening, It is just about vocalizing it a little bit more. 

00:06:39 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah yeah, yeah. 

00:06:41 Amy Palmer 

OK, so you’ve been at Bristol now, is it six months? 

00:06:45 Tansy Jessop 

Five and a half. 

00:06:45 Amy Palmer 

Five and a half months 

00:06:46 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, five months 2 weeks. 

00:06:47 Amy Palmer 

(laughter) and you’ve almost finished your first teaching block, yes, OK, so let’s talk about what your what do you feel your biggest successes are so far? What have you enjoyed the most? 

00:06:56 Tansy Jessop 

Enjoyed the most, definitely, I think the development of the Curriculum Framework, the Curriculum Cafes, your beautiful design. The sense of excitement that’s generated. 

And now really, the work begins in terms of implementing that, and we hope that will be as exciting. 

00:07:14 Amy Palmer 


00:07:16 Tansy Jessop 

I hope it will be as exciting and in a sense begin to tease out the principles and the values and the framework in particular disciplines where they’ll have autonomy to think about how that looks in their discipline. 

00:07:29 Amy Palmer 


00:07:30 Tansy Jessop 

So we’re doing our first Curriculum Festival in January and we’ve got a few programs teed up and that’s exciting, so the curriculum frameworks been really exciting. 

The second most exciting bit of work. I thinks been the fast-track version of TESTA. 

I mean that’s generated huge discussion and excitement. So it’s a kind of, it’s a kind of mock exercise with TESTA much quicker, which is why it’s fast track and it involves a workshop with final year students where you collect data around, and it’s collected on cards and flip charts or whatever, around their experience of the really brilliant things in a program and the stuff that’s not working so well. 

And we take that, and we inflect it back. We bring it back to the program teams and say, you know, this is what your students seem to be saying. And we do that in quite a lively PowerPoint where they also tell us what they think is going well. 

And then we give them some quick win tactics. We look at the literature and we look at stuff that’s proven that you know, I and other members of the team have done and works, and they could adapt or they bring their own practice to it and we try and get teams to commit to new ways of practice through the process of hearing what students are saying. 

The team thing really matters, that’s the heart of the TESTA process. 

It’s about a whole team approach rather than a couple of brilliant individuals doing fantastic things. It’s about saying actually as a team, how do we do this? How do we design the curriculum? How do we design assessment? How do we do daring pedagogies? 

That’s the, that’s the real heart of it, because I think we can take better risks together than individuals taking risk. People are frightened to take individual risks. 

00:09:06 Amy Palmer 

It’s and it’s about creating that space for teams to come together as well. 

There is, there’s nothing formalised at the moment, even though you know fast track TESTA is not a process that you have to go through, but there isn’t that space at the moment for teams to come together and talk about their assessment and their program. 

00:09:21 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think some programs took more. You know, some programs have team meetings and then others don’t, so it’s very it’s one thing I’ve noticed about Bristol. There’s a lot of local practice, a lot of different autonomies operating all over the show, and that has its virtue, but I think it means that sometimes people don’t get the same experience and we don’t want to homogenize in teaching and learning, but we want to ensure that there are ways you know they’re good things we all Seek to do, yeah. 

00:09:54 Amy Palmer 

Yeah, so going back to that slightly and going back to what you said about the curriculum framework for anyone listening who hasn’t seen the new curriculum proving. Can you briefly just go through it, you know? 

00:10:04 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah yeah yeah.  

OK, so the the number of the Curriculum Framework is the idea that education is not a transaction? It’s countercultural. In marketed higher education it’s become a bit of a transaction in some people’s minds. 

And really, what we want to do is press home the idea that it’s about making a difference, that it’s about transformation. It’s about changing the way students think, know and even how they you know, how they act in the world. The sense that it actually captures a journey where students undergo some sorts of transformations. 

So that’s the first thing. 

There are three main elements to the framework, underlying is the idea that going to universities is about an intellectual endeavor, that actually you learn new things in a discipline you’re curious about, it’s exciting. 

The second area is that it’s not just about an intellectual journey, it’s about personal development. It’s about how you grow as a person, particularly if you are a first time undergraduate. 

You know, what happens in those three or four years to you as a person. How do you grow and develop? How can universities facilitate that? The growth of your confidence, the sense of resilience, the sense of knowing how to make judgments sometimes without all the facts and also knowing how to work in a community. So a sense of belonging is one of the elements of the framework, so it’s about intellectual development and it’s about personal development. 

It’s also about helping students to understand that degrees are not just an end in themselves for a selfish end. And I’m not saying students are selfish! But there’s a, there’s quite a neoliberal view of higher education as something that gets you a better job, better pay, a better career, and I think what we want to underline is that you know taxpayers all over this country invest in higher education. It’s not just the £9000, the very expensive £9250 pounds.  

It’s also part of the tax base and there’s some social contribution that we want students to understand and encourage in the curriculum, so that students actually come out of the curriculum wanting to engage with some of the global and civic challenges that exist.  

So there are six dimensions of the framework. 

It’s about inspiring and innovative teaching and lots of ways to actively engage students in the curriculum. It’s about being intellectually stimulating, so that’s about problem solving, inquiry based learning, research-based teaching, getting students not just passively receiving but actively engaging with questions rather than answers you know, and some of them are insoluble, which is part of, you know, real life. 

The third dimension is really one of Bristol USP’s. It’s that we have a very rich tradition of students being rooted in disciplines, but also a fantastic space opening up for interdisciplinary work. And I think Bristol Futures set the pathway for that with their open online course. Which one of them has just won a prize. Chris Preist’s sustainability one. 

But also ones on creativity and global citizenship. 

Those kind of ideas then actually we can cross disciplines, and we want to encourage that so interdisciplinary practice is part of the, we’ve got a strange dimension called disciplinary and interdisciplinary, which is a bit clunky, but we didn’t want to lose either! 

And then the the 4th dimension is about personal development and the next one is about sense of belonging. 

We really want to encourage in the curriculum, not just outside in societies and residences and where students meet, that students engage with one another in classes, seminars, labs. 

That it’s not an isolating experience. 

And the final dimension is about global and civic engagement, where students are encouraged to tackle problems in the city and begin to see how they can contribute to resolving some of the issues globally. 

You know, climate change. As you know, we’ve declared a climate emergency. We need to actually embed in the curriculum ways of thinking about that, ways of tackling problems wherever we can. So it’s exciting and the beauty of the framework is we’ve come up with it together. 

So we had seven curriculum cafes with about 200 staff members and the staff generated the ideas and then we pulled them together into a framework. So I’m hoping that that period of development means that it has more ownership and certainly at Senate and elsewhere, it’s been approved and owned. 

00:14:19 Amy Palmer 

Yeah, yeah, and it resonates with people as well. 

00:14:21 Tansy Jessop 

Yes, yes. 

00:14:21 Amy Palmer 

And yeah, it’s almost like a mission statement for education at the university, yeah? 

00:14:24 Tansy Jessop 

Yes, yeah, and I think what’s interesting about it is it’s. It’s kind of signing up to the view that education is not just an arid technical knowledge based thing, that there are also kind of values and human dimensions, and I think we’ve got to embrace those. Educations about, it’s a humanizing project, and I, you know, I think we’ve got to work with that. 

00:14:46 Amy Palmer 

Yeah, in some places we’ve lost our way a little bit with that, and so it is about bringing the emotion back. 

00:14:53 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, absolutely yeah. 

00:14:54 Amy Palmer 

OK so we talked about what you’ve done so far. Do you have any? What are your plans, kind of going forward for the next year or so?. 

00:15:04 Tansy Jessop 

So I’ve actually got a sort of four-year plan. 

I’m not,  I’m not yet East European or pre 1989 enough to have a five-year plan, but I have a four-year plan! 

But the four-year plan really is that we take all of our programs through the curriculum framework in a really collegiate, spacious, thoughtful way, where it becomes part of our DNA as something that everyone embraces and it also enables teams to share their best practice because there’s lots of good stuff happening in those spaces. 

So it’s not like we’re delivering a framework or delivering the ideas to them. We’re actually generating a space for all of our ideas to come together. In a design process where the curriculum is designed as a coherent thing, rather than as often happens in many universities in modular silos, or you know, I design my unit and I, you know we, we cobble it together, and it’s a caricature that, but I I actually think we want to from the from the start actually help people to see it as a whole and to begin to see all the elements of it and how they stitch up into a beautiful tapestry. 

Because I think what we often have. It’s like those granny blankets, you know when they knit patches and you then sew them together. And some of the patches are brilliant and some of the patches are dull and there’s a sense in which trying to make the whole tapestry be something beautiful is the end. 

So that’s the four-year program underpinning that we’ll carry on for a couple of years doing TESTA which is the research-based project on assessment and feedback, which is taking a program view of how we assess students and very evidence led and helps, helps programs understand the student perspective of all of these assessments that are coming through different modules, and their feedback. And also builds us, you know what the literature is now talking about as assessment literacy for both students and staff. 

And so we’ll carry on doing TESTA, we’re doing it on about 16 programs this year. And I think there’s quite an appetite for carrying on doing TESTA fast track. So programs have said ‘oh can we do this again next year?’ and I’m keen that we spread it and do it and I think the people doing it are loving doing it. And I think people are finding it really useful and it’s quick. 

You know, we only spend an hour with the team, but then they go away and think about stuff and we do all the work and it’s really fun. 

They do the work in actually implementing, but we do the data collection and the presentation of the data. 

And I think it’s energizing for BILT actually, I think we as a community and BILT are building up more and more things we do together. And you know your example of the British Conference for Undergraduate Research. I mean, that’s been a triumph. 

00:17:47 Amy Palmer 

Yeah it was. 

00:17:47 Tansy Jessop 

The fact that, how many applications have you got now? 

00:17:50 Amy Palmer 

And we’ve had 58 applications. 

00:17:53 Amy Palmer 

Stunning, stunning yeah. 

00:17:55 Amy Palmer 

We feel bad about how many people we’re going to have to not bring. 

00:18:01 Tansy Jessop 

How many are we gonna take? 

00:18:02 Amy Palmer 

We I think we’ve got maximum 30.  

00:18:05 Tansy Jessop 

Oh, that’s sad, but I think that Emily’s vision, your student fellow and your vision that actually we need a conference here as well. 

00:18:11 Amy Palmer 

Oh, definitely, definitely yeah, that’s a great idea. 

00:18:12 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, or a regional conference like a G4 conference or something, yeah? 

00:18:16 Amy Palmer 

And Emily setting up the journal as well. There is such an appetite with students to do research and have their research published in some ways. And it’s just not been tapped into before so it’s huge. 

00:18:25 Tansy Jessop 

Really exciting yeah yeah yeah. 

00:18:30 Amy Palmer 

Yeah OK, I love it. It’s a very exciting four-year plan. 

00:18:34 Tansy Jessop 

So I mean, I think it’s going to keep us busy. But I think you know that’s, for me the excitement of having, you having a bigger BILT team and us working together with staff over a period of time, I think is really exciting and it dovetails with a lot of the work that Judith doing with HR in terms of promotion frameworks and actually setting in place structures which value teaching. And values teachers 

And I think the more we do that the, the bigger the build up to culture change. 

00:19:00 Amy Palmer 

Definitely, I’ve been working in BILT for about 2 1/2 years now and just in that time I’ve been in BILT it’s been a huge culture change, you know with a a bigger focus on teaching. All the time there’s momentum growing with this 

00:19:13 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, absolutely. And I think the whole of Education Services is very engaged. So yeah, for me, one of the interesting things is in this role working with professional services and education services on so many big projects has been fascinating and brilliant actually, really exciting. 

00:19:29 Amy Palmer 

I’m glad you’re having a good time! 

00:19:30 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, thank you I am! 

00:19:33 Amy Palmer 

So Tansy we’ve come to end of our podcast now. 

00:19:36 Tansy Jessop 

Ah, brilliant. 

00:19:36 Amy Palmer 

Is there anything you’d like to, you know, share with our listeners anything you’d like to say? 

00:19:41 Tansy Jessop 

Yeah, I suppose, I suppose one of the things that’s been an insight for me over the last few years. Working at Solent and here is and I keep saying this and I’ve just been reading a book about it, is how, it actually triggered for me with two of your student fellows from last year who went on placements to America, to Seattle and McGill University. 

And I said to them, what was different about your university education in America? North America and they said to me.  

Ah, we just wrote so much more and they said not summative assessments. We wrote in exploratory ways all the time, every week, and really, I keep saying in fast track and in TESTA meetings and curriculum meetings, is we really need to realise that a lot of higher education hangs on the fact that we get our students writing and thinking much more, not for assessment, but actually to go deeper in the discipline to go deeper with the literature to go deeper with the concept and their questions.  

I just think one of the consequences of these compacted modules with two summative assessments or three summative assessments has been the erosion of those opportunities and spaces for exploratory writing, and I do think, I was with the lawyers last week and one of the lawyers said to me in his seminars, he’s asked students to read the reading before the seminar, and then when they come in, they have to have written 250 words about the reading and he asked them to read it out loud. 

And it’s not. You know it’s not marked or anything, and he said it’s just made such a difference because people are engaging so much more meaningfully. And the readings, I found that with blogging with students, and you know, there are more and more tasks we need to do which gets students deeper, it’s one way of circumventing the problems of mass higher education where there’s so many students, we haven’t got time. 

I think when we get students writing reflectively, and in exploratory ways, we all go a bit deeper and we help students to grow and reflect on their learning, and I think that’s the one thing I’m quite keen we press home through the curriculum review. 

There’s lots of other things you know. There’s research based teaching, all that stuff, but I actually think we, you know, and for me the translation piece will be around, I do believe we can do it in STEM subjects. But how we translate those exploratory tasks into STEM will be an interesting challenge, but yeah, but I think you know, I think some of the best scientists you know they write jottings when they’re thinking, yeah, and I think we need to, we need to encourage that you know, that writing is not a one off thing for an assessment. 

That writing is a way of thinking. So that’s the one thing. That’s sort of my latest thinking about what we do with students and how we actually ramp up deep learning. 

00:22:41 Amy Palmer 

Tansy, it’s been so lovely speaking to you about this and I really hope everyone has enjoyed it as much as I have. Can we come back maybe at the end of the year and talk again? 

00:22:51 Tansy Jessop 

That would be lovely. Let’s see if I can say anything different! (laughter) 

Thanks Amy it’s been fab being with you  

00:23 Amy Palmer  

Alright and thanks for listening. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.