The Sustainable Futures Theme: what we have learnt about interdisciplinary education so far, and what is next


Sustainable Development poses perhaps the defining social and environmental challenges of the 21st Century, and will impact the lives of our students in many ways, both personally and professionally. What role does a university have in preparing students to meet these challenges, and how best can it do this?  What role does interdisciplinary education play in this, and how can we effectively offer it? Is a values-based approach complementary or in conflict with a more instrumental approach to education focused on the acquisition of skills and attributes to make one more employable? How can students be more effectively involved and engaged? How can the formal curriculum and non-credit bearing activities and opportunities offered by the university work together?

In this talk and discussion, I will offer an overview, reflections and learnings on the University’s engagement with Education for Sustainable Development through the Sustainable Futures theme of Bristol Futures, look at where we are going next (and how you can get involved) and consider how the university can scale things up in response to its recent declaration of a Climate Emergency.


Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems in the Department of Computer Science. He is the Bristol Futures Sustainable Futures Theme Lead and is responsible for supporting Education for Sustainable Development throughout the university. His research focuses on the environmental impacts, both positive and negative, of digital technology.


Introducing Student as Producer: A Bristol perspective

Dr Harry Pitts, Lecturer in Management

Next 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.

Student 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.

Influenced 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.

The 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 conceived

The 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.

Already 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 conceived’.

More 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.

Around 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.

In 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.

As 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.

At 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.

Overlooking 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

Student 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.

Encouraging 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.

More 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.

With 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 history’.

As 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.

All 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.

Photograph of Alex Forsythe

Self-Regulated Learning Approaches in HE; Goal Setting as Conduit to Incremental Learning


Undergraduates prize high-quality formative feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Often these same students lack the range of self-regulatory motivations and skills, including being able to integrate feedback messages (Winstone et al., 2017; 2016). Embedding these incremental gains within an adaptive self-regulatory approach is, therefore, a vital transferable skill. This seminar will report on an intervention to build self-regulatory behaviours and learning, through goal-setting theory and reflection techniques. The programme of research was designed to support pedagogical approaches and counter issues of common method variance (Richardson, Simmering & Sturman, 2009). Participants received individual summary reports reflecting an endorsement of strategies in each phase. Prompting self-reflection, norm-referenced debriefing was provided in subsequent lectures and related virtual tutorials were available supporting content delivery. In addition, students set three goals focussed on implementing messages from previously written feedback. Finally, students reflected on the use of these strategies as part of a module assessment. We sought to investigate whether training in self-regulatory processes, including goal setting, motivated strategies and reflection, increase promote gainful learning. Findings are discussed in relation to the SAGE model of feedback recipience (Winstone et al., 2017). The findings extend the tools that can be employed to promote agentic learning gain. This novel, scalable, approach placed students as active participants in reflecting on and developing their learning approaches. This has potential to be used widely across curricula supporting learning and valuable employability skills.


Alex Forsythe has been an educator and psychologist since 2003 and among her various accomplishments, she is Senior Lecturer at University of Liverpool, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Head of Professional Certification for the Association of Business Psychology. This combination of expertise and experience is the foundation of the knowledge that Alex applies to identify opportunities and problem solve in innovative and creative ways. She is committed to see her initiatives through, with an infectious enthusiasm to motivate and encourage others to strive towards excellence.

These experiences have shaped Alex into a focused educator who understands the value of partnerships and networks, who strives to help students and academics develop as people and to stay the course. She continues to develop to advanced professional standing in areas relating to human performance and then applying those principles to better support and inform students, academics and organisations on how to manage their performance.
Her work in this area has attracted invited talks and papers. In addition to being Associate Editor Higher Education Pedagogies, Alex is Editor for the award-winning community of practice for psychological literacy, “PsychLiverpool”.

Photo from Chris Adam's Education Excellence Seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Chris Adams

Chris Adams is a teaching fellow and first-year coordinator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, where he has been teaching undergraduates for nearly twenty years. He is interested in all aspects of education, from digital learning to practical chemistry, and was recently awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to try and get first-years to do some real research.

What are the biggest benefits of near-peer learning?

I think that students really appreciate getting to know fellow students from other year groups. Especially with a first year unit, the older student can pass on a whole host of tips for being a successful student. This mirrors what Imogen Moore has recently talked about in law: students like hearing the voice of other students.

Did you encounter any challenges? How did you overcome them?

I was anticipating challenges to the ‘legitimacy’ of being taught by fellow undergraduates, but that has never happened, possibly because they’re not awarding marks. Also, they’re not really teaching – it’s more that they’re facilitating learning, which is why I always call them facilitators. Timetabling is problematic – trying to get students from two different year groups to the same place at the same time is not straightforward.

Do you think near-peer learning could be effective with other areas of the curriculum?

I think that it’s especially useful for what we call ‘transferable’ skills. I would think long and hard before using a similar scheme to teach academic knowledge, though there are many examples of instructor-led near-peer teaching sessions where students help teach factual knowledge, with an academic present to provide oversight and fill in the gaps.

What advice would you give to staff who wanted to set up a similar project?

Make sure that you’ve got a reliable group of facilitators, and write a ‘lesson plan’ for every session. Then, go through each session beforehand with them as participants so that they experience it as a student.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

I like Graham Gibbs ‘53 powerful ideas’ series, available at Bite size chunks of deep  teaching wisdom which should be compulsory reading for anybody teaching in HE.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

Student fees. When I went to University I went purely because I was interested in chemistry, and my only goal was to learn as much about it as possible. Nowadays, students end up with such a huge debt that there is tremendous pressure on them to do well and get a well-paid job, and that pressure is detrimental to their well-being.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

My chemistry teachers at school, Mr Herrett and Mr Waugh. Both of them were old-school masters who delighted in setting fire to things, preferably with as much coloured smoke as possible, and who didn’t get too upset when I blew the bin up, or pointed the Bunsen burner at their hand.

Chris Adams

Using Later-Year Undergrads to Teach Soft Skills to Earlier-Year Undergrads


Universities are increasingly being asked to produce graduates with ‘transferable skills’ that will make them ’employable’, yet people who have spent their whole working life in the University system are often unqualified to do this. Chris will talk about a unit that he has developed in Chemistry in which undergraduates from the later years of the degree program help first-year students start to develop these skills, and about how this can help with the transition to University.


Chris Adams is a teaching fellow and first-year coordinator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, where he has been teaching undergraduates for nearly twenty years. He is interested in all aspects of education, from digital learning to practical chemistry, and was recently awarded a University teaching innovation grant to try and get first-years to do some real research.

Debbie Cotton

Easing the Transition of First Year Undergraduates through an Immersive Induction Module


An increasingly competitive market in higher education (HE) has encouraged many institutions to engage in curriculum transformation efforts aimed at enhancing student learning, retention and attainment. The start of the first year is recognised as being a challenging time for undergraduates as they negotiate the norms and practices of new academic communities and foster relationships with peers and academics. In this talk, we discuss a comprehensive evaluation of one aspect of a large-scale curriculum development project at the University of Plymouth, the introduction of a four-week immersive induction module. This module (included in almost all programmes across the university) aimed to provide students with discipline-relevant academic skills and networks to support them through the transition period and beyond. The evaluation explored academic and student experiences of this module, as well as impacts on academic self-efficacy, social integration, retention, and attainment of different student groups. Positive outcomes were identified in terms of student attainment (including a narrowing of the gender attainment gap), student retention, and students’ perceptions of preparation and integration. Challenges of this approach included variable approaches to implementation, and the need to manage student expectations for subsequent modules. In some ways, the immersive induction module was a victim of its own success, thus student expectations for subsequent modules proved difficult to fulfil.


Dr Rebecca Turner is an Educational Developer with the Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory at the University of Plymouth. Rebecca works to support new and experienced academics, researchers and professional staff to develop their pedagogic practice to enhance the student experience. Rebecca is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academic and an active member of the Staff and Education Development Association, where she is currently serving as a member of their Executive Committee. She has diverse research interests; her main work centres on the theme of transitions, however, she has being involved with a HEFCE Learning Gain Pilot project and has also undertaken work on behalf of the Higher Education Academy to examine the impact of educational development activities. She is currently collaborating with The Student Exchange Partnership to undertake research relating to Student Unions and their work to support teaching and learning. A full list of Rebecca’s research can be found at:

Professor Debby Cotton is Head of Educational Development in the Pedagogic Research Institute and Observatory (PedRIO), Plymouth University, UK. She is a Principal Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy (PFHEA), and a National Teaching Fellow (NTF), and was selected to work as an assessor on the UK Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Debby has a doctorate from Oxford University, which focused on teaching controversial environmental issues. She has played a key role in the development of pedagogic research at Plymouth University for over 15 years, and was central to the development of PedRIO, one of the University’s eight research institutes. Debby is a popular invited speaker and has delivered workshops and keynotes on higher education in Europe, China, the US and South Africa. She sits on the editorial board of three journals, has contributed to upwards of 25 projects on pedagogic research and development, and produced more than 70 publications on a wide range of HE teaching and learning issues including sustainability education, student transition, retention and attainment, and internationalisation of higher education. She has recently been called upon to advise on higher education in China, and is engaged in collaborative research with academic colleagues at Zhejiang University and Fudan University.You can find out more about Debby’s work and publications here:

ron barnett delivering his seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Ron Barnett

Professor Ron Barnett delivered a interesting and amusing seminar on the topic ‘Global Citizenship: Feasible utopia or a dangerous mirage?’ as part of our 2017/18 Education Excellence Series. The seminar looked at the politics and philosophy around this topic and asked us to consider a number of questions around the timing of this topic and what is meant by the term ‘global citizen’ (full seminar can be watched here). Ron has continued the discussion as part of his interview below. 

In what sense is it important for students to engage with the concept of global citizenship?

A genuine higher education is just that, a higher form of education, which extends students in the fullest way; and the idea of global citizenship offers just this kind of prospect, to open to the students a space in which they can situate both their studies and themselves as persons in those infinite horizons.

You suggest the concept of the student as global citizen is messy? What do you mean by this?

The idea of the student as global citizen is messy because there are at least several interpretations of it, with criss-crossings and tensions between some of them (posing issues of the global economy, selfhood, world community, cross-culturality, empathy, worldly understanding, knowledge in a global setting and so on). This is a messy situation.  So a programme for global citizenship requires that fundamental choices be made – as between epistemology and ontology, curriculum and pedagogy, understanding and action and so on.

In what concrete ways could we bring together local and international students to help strengthen the sense of global citizenship at Bristol?

One way would be to look at the development goals of the United Nations (or their latest incarnation) and for students collectively to consider just how a student’s programme offers possibilities for interpretation, action and self-understanding in that context, ie, in helping to take up the challenges of those worldly goals.

Where does the concept of ecology fit in global citizenship?

Ecology speaks of (i) interconnectiveness, (ii) impairments or a falling short in the ‘ecosystems’ of the world, (iii) humanity’s responsibilities thereto. On all three fronts, ecology therefore is itself entangled with global citizenship.  The concept of ecology pushes global citizenship to identify impairments in the large ecosystems of the world – knowledge, economy, culture, learning, persons, the natural environment and society itself – and to identify, too, responsibilities and possibilities for attending to the impairments in those worldly ecosystems.

Is there any particular educational resource or book or article that you would recommend everyone should read?

A book in my library that catches my eye – but which still awaits my proper attention – is ‘Between Naturalism and Religion’ by Jurgen Habermas. It does not deal directly with ‘global citizenship’ but it both engages with many cognate issues – citizenship, liberalism, human rights, religion and so forth – and does so bringing to bear the large and generous horizons so characteristic of Habermas’ work.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

This is easy. Terry Moore (who is no longer with us), who was my MPhil and PhD supervisor (at the London Institute of Education).  He modestly admitted to me that he knew nothing about the focus of my interests – in forging a philosophy of higher education – but he (a) gave me space to develop my own thinking, (b) supported and encouraged my efforts, and (c) brought to bear a discipline in my thinking and writing.  I owe him much and was very happy to dedicate one of my books to him.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

  • Again, this is easy and yet difficult. It would be to require that every programme of higher education could demonstrate that it seriously required (and not frivolously) that their student think.
  • Heidegger remarked that ‘In universities especially, the danger is still very great that we misunderstand what we hear of thinking …’ In other words, we may not even understand properly what is to count as thinking.  And Bertrand Russell was said to remark (perhaps apocryphally) that ‘the English would sooner die than think’ and he added ‘and most of them do’.
  • Serious, searching thinking, that takes nothing for granted and is determined to get to the bottom of things and even emerge into a new clearing, is extremely hard, discomforting and even painful.
  • I see many signs of a reluctance or an inability to think in research, in scholars’ writing, in papers for review, in doctoral students’ theses, in students’ approach to their own learning and so on.
  • We are slipping, unwittingly, into a non-thinking culture. The contemporary French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler, speaks of a general ‘stupidity’.  I wouldn’t go this far, but we can surely talk of a general un-thinkingness.  But a genuine higher education calls for, and even demands, serious thinking.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

  • Again, this is surprisingly easy. It is George Orwell’s little book ‘Why I write’.  It is a very short book but it can be recommended just on the basis of its first chapter (‘Why I write’) and its last (‘Politics and the English language’).
  • The point here is to care about language and to care about writing and, therefore, for one’s own writing.
  • I fear that I sense little care or concern for writing among scholars these days. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalisation.  There are scholars who write with care, and who have a care for their readers; and there are even scholars who are trying to help to improve the character of the writing of scholars today – such as Steven Pinker, Michael Billig and Helen Sword.  But those efforts are undermined by certain scholars – especially in philosophy and social theory – who are explicit in inveighing against clarity, lucidity and accessibility.  I’ll not name names.
  • But if we do not have a care for writing and a care towards our own writing, why should the reader take seriously anything we have to say?