Enhancing the relationship with an affiliate college
Dr Melanie Jones, Swansea University
Published August 2013
Affiliate Colleges or other partnership relationships are a key source of recruitment of international students into many UK universities and economics departments. Such agreements are, however, often signed without sufficient consideration or commitment to partnership working at the subject level. Given limited resources, quite naturally the priority for departments is current rather than future students. However, operating independently from the affiliate college increases the likelihood of an imperfect fit in terms of the curriculum, teaching and assessment methods, and standards. Should this happen then students are then at risk of entering the department with suboptimal preparation and inaccurate expectations which can only be detrimental to their experience and performance within the host department.
While these issues can be evident in the transition from foundation year to Level 1 of an undergraduate programme or from pre-masters to taught masters they are even more acute at undergraduate certificate/diploma level where such students join existing students part way through their undergraduate degree. Our relationship is the latter and this case study simply reviews the initiatives, lessons learned and consequences of attempting to develop a genuine partnership with an affiliate college.
1. Communication and support
Appoint a subject-specific link within the department who is the key point of communication with the affiliate college. This person can then respond to queries from the affiliate college and provide constructive feedback based on their detailed knowledge of the degree programmes and performance of former affiliate college students. Given the multitude of essential administrative jobs within an economics department this may seem a luxury that a department cannot afford, but it should be viewed as an investment with positive long-term benefits for these students and ultimately the recruitment relationship.
It is only when you undertake this role you realise how difficult it is for an external organisation to anticipate and fully understand a department's requirements. Teaching staff at the affiliate are unlikely to have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of the programmes onto which these students progress to design courses that fully equip them. Meetings between teaching staff from the affiliate college and the department proved hugely beneficial in helping understand what it is we require from a preparatory module and the environment in which these students will subsequently be expected to perform.
Some of the simplest changes to their programme, for example, in using a common approach to referencing, providing introductory sessions on our VLE and using the same computer software applications can prevent unnecessary gaps in student knowledge/skills. There has, however, also been an opportunity to learn from the affiliate college, especially in terms of supporting international students.
In our institution the subject-specific link is also a member of the University Committee responsible for reviewing and enhancing the relationship with our affiliate College. This ensures that more substantial changes to the partnership agreement and programmes have support at the subject level and that the university is aware of issues and initiatives across departments, enabling all parties to identify and learn from best practice.
2. Curriculum and assessment design
Since students enter the department at Level 2 it is essential that our affiliate college is able to mirror our provision at Level 1. Via the subject link there is now an annual transfer of module outlines, reading lists and examples of assessment. For some courses we have also opened up our student VLE to teaching staff in the affiliate college. Moreover, this degree of openness ensures that as degree programmes are removed, changed or new programmes are developed the affiliate college is fully informed and is able to modify its provision accordingly.
Further, the department acts in the capacity of external examiner for the programme at the affiliate college where our Level 1 module coordinators moderate samples of assessment to ensure comparability in both academic content and standards. Representation of the subject-specific link on the examination board at the affiliate college further facilitates feedback and enhancement of the programme.
3. Managing the transition
The very nature of affiliate colleges which often solely recruit international students to whom they are able to offer specialised support including via small group and intensive teaching methods generates important differences in the learning environment compared to the host department. In the latter, where staff-student ratios are typically far lower and there is integration of home, EU and international students, students are required to be independent and critical learners. Students leaving an affiliate college are therefore at risk of having inaccurate perceptions and expectations of the demands of their future programme.
However, as a consequence of dialogue between the two parties our affiliate college has introduced some large class teaching, more independent elements of study and more formal and less interactive lecture sessions. The subject-specific link, together with a former affiliate college student, are also able to meet students during their time at the affiliate college to explain their future degree programme and highlight issues they may face.
Nothing, however, substitutes for real experience and students at our affiliate college now all attend a Level 1 lecture from the department, after which, they have a compulsory piece of assessment which asks them to reflect on the difference in learning environments. Finally, an awareness of these issues has also enabled the department to be better prepared once these students arrive, including enhancing the departmental induction and role of the personal tutor.
The transition between the affiliate college and the department is still substantial but our aim has been to make it more gradual and therefore manageable for these students.
The more open and transparent relationship which has developed allows both critical reflection and, continuous feedback and improvement. Progression rates of students from our affiliate college have improved year-on-year and monitoring the performance of these students by module allows us to identify areas of future enhancement. Indeed, while there are still areas for improvement the nature of the relationship means we will work together to achieve them.
For economics departments that face the same issues my advice is simple - the situation is far more likely to improve if you are prepared to invest in this relationship. For economics departments considering entering into such an arrangement the key is an integrated design to the programme which will minimise the issues identified here.