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In the run up to the European University Association’s first pan-European Learning and Teaching Forum in Paris 28-29 September, we speak to Professor Jean Chambaz, a European University Association (EUA) Board member and the President of the University Pierre and Marie-Curie (UPMC) about the requisites for good learning and teaching. UPMC will host university leaders and renowned experts at the EUA conference co-organised with the French association of university presidents (CPU) in Paris on 28-29 September.

Has learning and teaching become more of a priority in recent years at UPMC and, if so, why? Is this a national trend?

The world is changing. Society is transforming. We are facing more complex challenges at a global level. Learning and teaching has been an important part of the mission of universities for centuries and we must adapt our strategy to today’s changes. Our strategy in the 21st century should meet the needs of the today’s youth while staying in alignment with our mission to disseminate knowledge. We need to prepare students to be agile and efficient in a world where the nature of jobs is rapidly evolving. We are now fully embedded in the digital revolution and technology and data are transforming the organisation of our day-to-day lives. As a consequence, the way students develop their critical thinking must adapt and we must account for the way the context of knowledge transfer is changing. We are also building a knowledge-based society, illustrated by more students attending universities for third cycle degrees, a strong focus on lifelong learning and a student population that is increasingly diverse.

Universities globally share an obligation to adapt learning and teaching practice in accordance with this changed environment but the difference is in the answers they apply to these challenges because national contexts differ so much. I was closely involved with EUA work establishing common European principles for doctoral education and have seen the value of that work. We must do the same now for learning and teaching as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Bologna Process.

What is good university teaching and learning and how should quality be assessed at institutional, system or international level?

There is no single recipe for successful learning and teaching. It is the responsibility of universities to equip students with critical thinking and autonomy. We need to ensure that students are able to think for themselves in order to be active participants in society twenty or more years from now. Students need to learn how to learn and they have to know how to grow their learning which means that we must move from teaching to stimulating progressive learning. Professors have to learn how to make our students good learners.

Ideally this process should start before students reach university but our focus now is on the university level and at the university level we cannot accept passive students. Students need to be able to take responsibility for their learning and gain experience. This requires universities to be less bound by national regulation in order to put in place innovative institutional initiatives.

Four years ago UPMC was the first university in France to introduce an overall system of major and minor subjects or two majors across disciplines in sciences, engineering as well as human and social sciences with our partner Paris Sorbonne. This has enabled us to introduce research activities and to embed orientation and professional projects in the curriculum. Despite initial reticence from many professors to this change, students voted with their feet; 60% indicated an interest in the new system and one third enrolled for it.

Are the current ranking systems useful for evaluating the impact of a university learning and teaching approach?

Unfortunately not. Higher education rankings are mostly based on either research or reputation. UPMC performs well on research. When it comes to reputation, the French “Grandes Ecoles” system has left universities overshadowed. What I favour more than rankings is a strong focus on helping students choose the right curriculum. We must get rid of the hypocrisy of the no-selection dogma that impacts French universities and improve orientation of students according to their capacities with prerequisites for entry onto bachelor degrees. Otherwise, failure rates will continue. Today, 60% of students undertaking a bachelor degree in France fail. At UPMC we have a 60% success rate at their first year of study. It is not yet enough. We have to offer them a contract for success and propose curricula at university or vocational level that corresponds to their capacities.

Does UPMC ensure a minimum standard of learning and teaching quality? If so, how?

At UPMC we conduct annual evaluations on the way teaching is developed. This happens at department level under the supervision of the university administration responsible for learning and teaching quality. There are also initiatives to disseminate good practice in teaching and learning with a series of seminars for professors.

Typically academics are reluctant about direct student evaluation so we need to find a way to gather feedback on learning and teaching that is not direct opinion.

What is the impact of a low focus on learning and teaching?

We are a public university and our staff are public servants. One of our core missions is learning and teaching so if we neglect this area we are not doing our job. The high failure rate at bachelor level in France means that many people question universities’ efficiency. It’s vital for universities as well as for students and the society that we help students find the clues that will lead to their success. At UPMC we have made a huge effort to ensure that when we present our programmes to students we explain how demanding they are. We must also continue to strive to render our students active in their own learning.

Are there good practices you are aware of that we could share across the European university community?

There are so many good practices in the area of learning and teaching and that is the interest of the forthcoming EUA forum. It is amazing the number of initiatives that have sprung up just over the past 10 years and there are many existing local exchanges and networks between universities. The value of the EUA forum is that it will enable us to establish a wide and permanent platform for European exchange. We achieved this through EUA with the council on doctorate degrees and saw amazing university exchange as a result. Such exchange helps universities to identify success criteria and adapt them to their specific contexts.

Are there external and internal barriers to progress in learning and teaching evolution? If so, what are they?

First there are government imposed regulatory constraints. These national regulations limit the development of university level initiatives. Universities need more autonomy - with accountability of course - in the choice of the initiatives they introduce.

The second barrier is psychological and it relates to the fact that professors are trained for research not teaching at university level. Professors have difficulty accepting that they need to improve their teaching. We offer seminars in this area but we need to encourage professors to be more open-minded. Many reproduce the way they were taught. We are still assessing with written exams. There is not enough innovation in this area.

The third constraint is that career advancement in the university sector is mostly research driven. We need to take more account of professors’ engagement in learning and teaching. We are in the midst of a change process in this area and we are seeing a demand from governments and society for this change to happen. And the change is happening but it is a long-term process. There is pressure to from the inside too. Many colleagues are willing to drive the change. What we need is more attention and resources.

The window opened by government on HR processes that support a stronger focus on learning and teaching is small. At UPMC we have set up our own system of premiums offering a premium for research and also a premium for the involvement in learning and teaching innovation and we have found that colleagues are happy to see their engagement recognised.

What is your message to policy makers interested in evolving university learning and teaching at national and European levels? What should they consider?

1. Ease the regulation.
2. Favour university driven initiatives; allow us to experiment.
3. Provide the correct funding to enable and sustain this experimentation.

What advice on L&T would you give a new university lecturer facing students in the coming academic year?

1. Don’t work alone – work in teams.
2. Be confident in your students.
3. Participate in all the available seminars to develop your learning and teaching. This will make it much easier to open discussion with other colleagues.
4. Apply the same rigour and enthusiasm to learning and teaching that you apply to your research. It is not a burden to focus on learning and teaching. It is very rewarding.

This article is part of a series on learning and teaching available on the European University Association website.


Jean Chambaz
Sorbonne University

Jean Chambaz has been serving as president at Sorbonne University since January 2018 and previously at the Pierre and Marie Curie University. MD by training, he was awarded a doctorate in Sciences at UPMC in 1988.  He was the first chair of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education (2008-2011), and was member of the EUA Board (2015-2018).

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