The never-ending pursuit as learning institutions: An example in the field of higher music education

Martin Prchal expands the debate on teaching and learning to how institutions should see themselves as learners in their continuous endeavours to improve the learning experience of their students. Here, he addresses three tools for institutional learning: professional development of teaching staff, internationalisation and quality assurance.

As higher education institutions we should always ask ourselves how to enhance the learning experience of our students. But are students the only ones who should be learning? What about the learning capacity of our institutions? If we as institutions want to continuously develop the student learning experience, we must seek, test and implement new approaches of teaching and learning, and, in doing so, ourselves undergo a process of learning.

The increased focus on teaching and learning in higher education is highly encouraging. One clear manifestation of this is the Leadership and Organisation for Teaching and Learning at European Universities – LOTUS project, led by the European University Association (EUA), which has addressed insights on how leadership in teaching and learning can be approached and further developed. In this article, I will discuss three tools that we can use to become “learning institutions”: the professional development of our (teaching) staff, internationalisation and quality assurance.

Within the LOTUS project working group, there was much discussion about the professional development of our teachers. This brought up a wide range of initiatives among participating institutions. But these were always based on the same questions: we hire our teachers because they are experts in their field, but what about their didactic skills? And how do we keep their didactic skills up to date? At the Royal Conservatoire, we developed a course called “The Artist as Teacher”, which addresses many different topics ranging from didactic skills to research-based education and social safety issues. Teachers go through a course of nine sessions of three hours each, and between sessions engage in an intervision process to observe each other’s teaching. We learned that there are two important conditions to making such a course a success. Firstly, supporting teachers to participate in the course by giving them extra working hours (in our system, teachers are paid per hour), and secondly, setting up the course in a way that addresses them through a disciplinary, context-specific language that they can relate to as artist-teachers. The latter condition is fundamental. Too often, musicians teaching in conservatoires see teams of pedagogical experts without any knowledge of the context descend upon music academies, only to face all kinds of misunderstandings and, as a result, strong resistance. A strongly discipline-specific approach is therefore needed.

Internationalisation is another tool that can be hugely beneficial for institutional learning. Having started with a heavy emphasis on the development of the individual through physical mobility, it has been interesting to see how internationalisation in higher education has developed over the years. Somewhat later, and based on the concept of internationalisation at home, the acquisition of international and intercultural competences for those who could not travel came to the fore. The next step, supported by the European Union through its funding programmes, was to give internationalisation a role in institutional development. Therefore, institutions were to work together at European level and engage in a learning and development process. The most recent step in internationalisation in higher education focuses on the role of internationalisation within society, i.e. how internationalisation can contribute to the local and regional contexts of the institutions and to large societal themes. One can clearly see these steps in the rationale behind the European universities alliances, in which both the concept of institutional development through deep European cooperation and its contribution to larger societal themes are stressed. However, this is easier said than done. If institutions agree that internationalisation is a tool for learning, they will have to formulate internationalisation strategies that avoid solely framing internationalisation as a goal in itself. Rather, such strategies should address how internationalisation can inform all developments taking place within an institution, ranging from curriculum development to issues regarding diversity, inclusion, and quality.

In quality assurance, a development approach can also be seen in the move from quality assurance to quality enhancement, and the emphasis on the presence of an institutional quality culture. In this context, a stronger emphasis could also be made on quality assurance as a tool for learning rather than technocratic discussions on criteria and indicators. In my institution, we have been experimenting with a shift from quantitative to qualitative quality assurance instruments. As part of a clear and continuous structure of planning and follow-up, we have developed a dynamic system of student and teacher panels to discuss curriculum and other relevant issues in an informal setting. We also involve international experts, the so-called ‘Critical Friends’ through MusiQuE, the international agency for the evaluation and review in higher music education, that speak the language of our discipline and provide us with a sense of where we stand – including in relation to other leading institutions internationally - and what could be improved. By going through this process, we are continuously learning as an institution.

But surely, there will be other tools that we can use to become “learning institutions”. I look forward to taking part in discussions on the never-ending commitment of institutions to themselves become “learners”.

This Expert Voices article is part of a series dedicated to leadership in teaching, a concept explored in the EUA-led project “Leadership and Organisation in Teaching and Learning at European Universities” (LOTUS).

Prof. Dr. Martin Prchal is the Vice-Principal of the Royal Conservatoire and AEC Council Member. He is a frequent author of articles on higher music education, internationalisation and quality assurance in various international journals and publications. Since 2020, Martin is also vice-president of the European Chamber Music Academy (ECMA).