Dr Harry Pitts, Lecturer in Management
week Professor Mike Neary, of the University of Lincoln, speaks at a
BILT Ed Ex event on the ‘Student as Producer’ approach. I have been
inspired by Neary’s radical approach to pedagogy in my own teaching practice
designing and delivering undergraduate units in the School of Management here
at the University of Bristol. In this blog, I will say a few words about it by
way of introduction, and say a little about what I have found interesting and
useful about it.
as Producer’s chief selling point is that it seeks to overcome the fraught
relationship between teaching and research catalysed by the changes in
contemporary higher education. It reunites research and teaching by creating a
learning environment that blurs the boundaries between the two not only for
teachers but, most importantly, for learners.
by Frankfurt School critical theory, and the radical pedagogy of touchstone
texts like Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy
of the Oppressedand
Jacques Ranciere’s Ignorant
Schoolmaster, Student as Producer challenges the sometimes
contradictory relationships of hierarchy, authority and passivity constructed
around the consumer-provider contract implicit in the contemporary university.
approach emphasises collaboration between students and academics to co-produce
knowledge, so that, as Neary puts it,
‘the student feels part of the academic project of the institution, in the
context of that institution’s relationship with the external world’. In my
experience of drawing on Student as Producer in my teaching and unit design
here at Bristol, it chimes well with the commitment in the University’s Education
Strategy to a ‘research-rich’ learning experience.
A life more deeply
roots of this approach go right back to the model for the modern university established
at the Friedrich Wilhelms University in Berlin in 1811. Writing
with Joss Winn, Neary highlights how this model took teaching and
research to exist in sympathy, courses consisting of tutors and students
engaged together in ‘research communities’ where the independent time and space
for ‘speculative thinking’ and ‘Socratic dialogue’ substituted for strict
curricula dictated by state or commercial imperatives.
in the 1910s, Walter Benjamin
bemoaned how this collectivist Humboltian idea, which has ‘students as teachers
and learners at the same time’, had subsided as an increasingly vocational and
individualist spirit of ‘office and profession’ had subsumed the university.
Benjamin’s alternative, which Neary sees
as foundational to the project of ‘student as producer’, was that the student
be included ‘as the subject rather than the object of the teaching and learning
process’, devoted to what Benjamin beautifully captured as ‘a life more deeply
recently, the classic contemporary definition of the liberal humanist
university was set out in the Magna Charta Universitatum
signed in Bologna in 1988, which suggested that both teaching and research
should be free of political and economic influence and that tuition should be
kept relevant to the needs of the present by being intertwined with research
and intellectual inquiry.
the same time, the Boyer Commission in the US,
named for the education theorist Ernest Boyer, established an Academic Bill of
Rights that guaranteed students ‘opportunities to learn through enquiry rather
than simple transmission of knowledge’. An approach commensurate with this
commitment was innovated with at US universities Stanford and MIT, whereby
undergraduate students worked on research projects in collaboration with
academics, even presenting at conferences and authoring papers together.
the UK, the experimentation with this approach at Warwick and Imperial led to
the uptake of research-led teaching as a key concern of the HEA, building on
proposals in the 2003
HE White Paper. This was consolidated with the establishment of the
Centres for Excellence in Teaching in Learning in the UK in 2005, devoted to
the promotion of learning based in research and inquiry- examples include
Warwick, Sheffield and Reading.
the peak of this wave, Student as Producer was initially developed at the
Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, University of Warwick, in the
mid-2000s. It was later implemented as a fully-fledged strategic and organising
principle at the University of Lincoln in the 2010s, led by Neary, then Dean of
Teaching and Learning and Director of Lincoln’s Graduate School.
Warwick and Lincoln, Student as Producer developed in response to the ‘student
as consumer’ model that arose with tuition fees and the state-driven marketisation
of HE in the UK. These have placed an imperative upon students to think about
their degree as a means to greater employability rather than a means to greater
knowledge – in spite of research
suggesting that students with an overly consumerist mindset do not
perform as well academically.
innovations around research-engaged teaching alive and kicking in the sector,
the 2016 HE Bill set up an opposition between research and teaching that, in
the view of Neary and other advocates of Student as Producer, has only
exacerbated the increasing vexed divide between them. Attendant upon this
divide, it also risks encouraging an unhealthy and sometimes antagonistic distance
between student and teacher. Indeed, studies suggest
that the experience of students enrolled at research-intensive
universities is not always particularly positive.
Subjects rather than
objects of history
as Producer begins from an analysis of the structural dysfunctionality inherent
in this state of affairs. As set out in an
HEA report summarising its successes, Student as Producer works to
reunite teaching and research as two interrelated aspects of academic life. It
does so partly by rejecting the idea that students themselves sit ‘at the heart
of the university system’. Rather, for Student as Producer the ‘heart-beat’ of
the university is the production of knowledge and meaning itself, and despite
the creeping tendency to separate the one out from the other, places students as
part and parcel of this.
a spirit of independent collaborative discovery, in practice Student as
Producer is based on three prongs. Firstly, problem-based
learning centring on small-group collaboration and reflection around
‘open-ended’ problems, with teachers fulfilling the role of facilitating and
supporting learning self-organised by the groups themselves. Secondly, it is
based on enquiry-based learning
structured around the provision of ‘scenarios’ to which students bring their
own ‘issues and questions’ facilitated by the teacher, and then seek out the
resources they need to answer them. Third, it is based on research-based learning, typically organised across a whole
programme, where methodology training supports students to engage with
‘authentic research problems in the public domain that involve engagement with
the wider community’.
The evidence points to
many benefits to the Student as Producer approach. As the HEA report attests,
Lincoln was awarded a commendation from the QAA Institutional Review 2012 for
the learning enhancements underpinned by Student as Producer, aswell as being
recognised as an example of good and effective practice by both the QAA and the
HEA. At Lincoln, there was a high level of support for the Student as Producer
model of research-engaged teaching and learning among students themselves, with
95% of those surveyed appreciating its benefits. Students reported the more
engaged mode of learning enabling them to overcome a lack of concentration and
motivation experienced in more conventional forms of delivery.
generally, research-based learning has been shown
to improve the critical and evaluative thinking and problem-solving skills of
students. There is evidence
that a research-led approach such as Student as Producer appeals to
non-traditional and non-standard students such as mature and part-time
students, overcoming the ‘alienation’ that some
scholars identify with the educational experiences of marginalised
classes and identities traditionally less well accommodated by HE in the UK.
the increasing imperative to look beyond university to the world of work, students
at Lincoln felt the benefits of Student as Producer not only for their
learning, but for employability and everyday life. The approach equips students
with vital capabilities for high-skilled work in the contemporary labour
market, like project working and collaboration. As they await entry into a
complex, uncertain world, Student as Producer enables students to engage
critically with that world by seeing themselves anew – namely, as what Neary
terms ‘subjects rather than objects of
subjects rather than objects of history, students seize the responsibility to
be critical, confident scholars in their own right. In my experience,
experimenting with Student as Producer principles in my teaching affords
students the opportunity to engage with sides of academic life they do not
always get the chance to see, bridging the divide. This has included involving
them in my own research through student research assistantships tied to
business partnerships, and emulating aspects of the academic research process
in classroom environments through research projects and conference-style paper
presentations. These are small steps I am keen to develop further.
in all, I have found Student as Producer an insightful guide for involving students
in wider academic life as active participants in the production and critique of
knowledge rather than their passive recipients. The Ed Ex lecture with
Professor Neary will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about this
radical and revolutionary take on research-rich teaching.