Month: June 2019

Seeking out opportunities to learn from others – similarities and differences between UK and US higher education

By Lucy Heming, Senior Assistant Registrar (Quality Assurance and Enhancement)

A picture of the study tour cohort visiting Capitol Hill.

In May 2019, I travelled with 11 colleagues from universities across England and Scotland to America for a study tour arranged by the Association of University Administrators. We spent a week in New York City and a week in Washington, D.C. visiting universities, higher education bodies and the Department of Education. The purpose of our tour was to explore three themes: Student Expectations, Experience and Success; Research and Teaching; and, Funding in Higher Education.

We visited 11 HE institutions while we were there, covering a range of types: publicly funded and privately funded; UG focussed and PG focussed; community colleges and four year universities… What became apparent through our visit was the similarity of challenges facing higher education institutions in the US, to our own institutions in the UK and across the different types of institution in the US. There were also parallels to the work I am involved in at Imperial as part of the Quality Assurance and Enhancement Team and working closely on supporting the implementation of the Learning and Teaching Strategy through the Learning and Teaching Committee.A poster describing aspirations for students at Rutgers University (I am authentic, inclusive, responsible, resilient, engaged, a scarlet knight, Rutgers)

A big theme in the US was student success and how this was described and perceived. Given students in the US largely pay higher fees than students in the UK, it is not surprising there is a public, media and governmental narrative around the need for students to reap a financial benefit from their time at university. These debates are present in the UK and are particularly pertinent right now following the release of the Augar report. However, all of the institutions we spoke to defined student success more broadly than financial returns, seeking to ensure students had a well-rounded education, that students who were not entering with the same cultural and educational capital as others were given opportunities to thrive and that all students understood what it meant to be a good citizen and part of a diverse and inclusive community. This was seen, for example, through Columbia University’s ‘awakening our democracy’ discussion series and ‘engineering for humanity’ focus, programmes at all institutions to specifically support first-generation entrants, and Northern Virginia’s Community College focus on educating students in healthcare professions which would be directly of use to the local community (marrying up employment prospects with community needs).

The work Imperial College is doing in implementing the Learning and Teaching Strategy and specific developments such as I-Explore clearly align with these efforts, promoting inclusive learning and teaching approaches and curricula and providing students with opportunities to engage with other students on disciplinary and non-disciplinary studies. Discussions underway on how the College can build on internationalisation opportunities, widen participation further and enable all students to share their cultural capital in curricula and extra-curricula activities also tally with similar discussions in the US.

Connections between research and teaching are very important for Imperial and equally as important for most of the HEIs we visited in the US. As undergraduate students tend to follow a general education syllabus in the first two years of their studies before specialising in a major in their final two years, the modules with the most direct connection to research in the US HEIs tended to be at postgraduate level. However we saw good examples of the opportunities for students to explore the research in which their lecturers are engaged through assisting on research projects in their undergraduate years, similar to Imperial’s successful Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP). An example of this was at Rutgers University which runs a 10 week paid summer science programme where undergraduate students undertake lab work, along with in-year opportunities.

Rethinking curricula and learning and teaching methods was evident in the US institutions we visited. At American University, Faculty Learning Communities were being developed to enable staff with a similar interest to work together on generating and implementing ideas. These were staff driven but centrally funded and had been formed around areas such as decolonising the curriculum. Faculty were also being trained on how to have conversations around difficult subjects and were then training other faculty, sharing knowledge and building support networks for each other. This reflects models being used at Imperial by the Educational Development Office and Education Office about equipping staff to learn from each other and identify their own areas of transformation.

This opportunity to learn from other institutions and colleagues helps inform the way in which I will go about my job in future. I would encourage others to make the most of opportunities to do something similar.

To find out more about the Association of University Administrators, go to or email your branch advocates, Lucy Heming and Jon Milner-Matthews at

To find out more about the study trip, you can search #AUAUSA2019 on social media channels or read the blog posts at (part two will be available soon). A full report on the visit will be available in the Autumn.

You can also hear Lucy’s thoughts on the similarities and differences between UK and US higher education on the ‘NACUBO in brief’ podcast here or wherever you usually download your podcasts.