Sabbatical Interviews 2013: David Mendoza-Wolfson, VP Education


Let’s start from the top of your manifesto. You said you wanted to bring in a Sabb Surgery once a month.

Yeah, the first one will be next Thursday (12th December), and next calendar year there will be one every month. It will be in the SUSU building concourse. It’s one of those things where it has been difficult to find a slot to actually book a time where I have been available and the facilities have been available. I’ll be there with potentially two of my Faculty Officers, if they are able to attend, and I’ll advertise it on my blog and via the Faculty Officers.

What progress have you made in reforming the Course Rep system?

There are now 359 elected Course Reps. Soon people will be able to look up their Course Reps online on the SUSU website’s Education tab. They will be able to ask them questions online as well.

Could you go in more detail about this section of the website?

When it’s fully up and running you’ll be able to see Education policy, but mostly it’ll just be a place for Q&A’s with your Course Reps, Academic Presidents and Faculty Officers. There will be a frequently asked questions section and it will also be used to publicise the physical drop-in sessions with Course Reps and myself. We have tried to achieve this as quickly as possible. Although waiting on information to come through for it has been frustrating we have limited resources, so we have just tried to do the best we can with the time available to us.

One of the key points in your manifesto was making the Hartley Library open for 24 hours a day, which would be especially popular during busy exam times. Has there been any progress towards this?

We’re in serious discussions with the Library about a trial during next summer’s exams. This will help us to see if it will be popular enough to make it justifiable. Although it would have been nice to trial it during January’s exams, the University has to do a huge costing – for example they have to put up more security systems. The University as a whole seem fairly on board with it, now we’re researching into the scale of support from students.

We had a focus group of all the Academic Presidents and Faculty Officers, where they were able to talk about their respective subject’s patterns of working in the Library. There will also be a survey from SUSU that students generally will be able to respond to. I firmly believe we will eventually have a permanent 24-hour library if students want one. All of this has been taking place in the context of a new Head Librarian, since for the first few months of my term we were without one.

Have there been any more improvements to workspace in the Library?

There are more seats in the Library now than there have ever been before and since the summer, 142 more seats have been created. I must say I’m pleased with the new layout for the foyer. Overall there is now more quiet and social space for students. On Level 5 the Library has arranged more study space. On Level 4 there will be a whole new room (in the old Student Outreach office), where every desk will have access to plugs. The Library has also agreed to keep its staff training rooms unlocked when they’re not in use and we’re working towards more seating on Level 4 during exam period. 154 pods have also been installed at desks, each of these has a 3 pin socket and two USB fast charger points. 130 of these are in study areas on level 2 and 24 are in room 5035.

Can you tell us what the Library staff are doing to make core textbooks more readily available?

The Library is digitising as quickly as it can. It is constantly buying and scanning physical books as well as subscriptions to online periodicals. It has a whole department devoted to scanning books. If lecturers notify them of the relevant core textbooks then the Library can prioritise them.

What about free printing credits?

I’m in early discussions regarding this but it’s looking possible that in the future the number of free print credits received by students will be increased – possibly even fourfold, to £20 per student.

With regard to the rest of the University, space is at a premium now more than ever on campus. What’s been done to make sure lecture rooms can fit their classes?

The University has invested in new infrastructure for sorting out rooms so hopefully, as of next calendar year when the new banner system comes in, there will be better allocation of rooms. I should say that Timetabling work really hard already and we have more students this year than ever before. The University has attempted to make sure it does not push its intake beyond limits. I’ve devoted a lot of time on a project to ‘futureproof’ campus and to ensure that the University always has state of the art teaching and learning facilities, which could take the form of a new building.

What do you see the future of the University as being, as far as student numbers are concerned?

The University doesn’t want to increase its numbers to the point where it stops being a world class university. At the moment the aim is to reach about 25,000 students within the decade. I think smaller universities will be the ones that have the greatest change in the number of students if caps were lifted.

How about changes to academic feedback on assessments?

Our NSS score in feedback is poor despite our high ratings in other areas like the library and resources. I believe that our students can get teaching that matches the quality of the University’s research and to achieve that level of quality, feedback needs to be improved. Furthermore I really want to transform assessment. I think our students are over assessed, especially when they simply repeat the same tasks over and over which only develops a small number of skills. I believe academics enjoy teaching but find marking boring, especially large numbers of the same type of work.

I have been looking at what other universities do in terms of innovative learning methods, particularly in the area of feedback. We currently have a survey up on this topic that I would like to see as many people fill in as possible, called “What does good feedback look like to you?”

There are various different ways that feedback could be offered and it’s something that should be stressed in every module handbook. Providing greater availability to your lecturer does not mean mandating more contact time when a student does not want it. It means those who do want greater chances to interact should be able to choose to do so.

What progress has there been in changing the tutor system?

We want there to be a universal structure to the personal tutor system. So instead of some subjects having a personal tutor and some having an academic advisor, with there being differences between what I would consider a tutor and someone from medicine would consider a tutor, and there being different scales (e.g. senior tutors, pastoral tutors) between departments and Faculties, I hope to simplify it. This should become policy by the start of the 2014/15 academic year.

I’m also trying to persuade the University to offer free language courses, outside of your degree, in the evenings for example. It makes our students more employable, it makes the University more international, helps those who want to study abroad, and is just a good personal skill to develop. I will also be starting our Faculty projects. In the next calendar year, the Physical Science and Engineering Faculty will be having an “appathon.” The winning team will get to publish their app and will receive a cash prize. In the Humanities Faculty there will be a competition in each discipline for the best essay within a chosen theme. The best ones will then be published in a journal by the University, the best overall of these will be the leading article.

I would love for those from other disciplines to come to me with ideas for other areas. We will also be having a renewed emphasis towards inviting in experts to deliver talks.

Have there been any changes regarding the limit on meetings with dissertation supervisors?

It depends per Faculty, as they all seem to have their own rules. I’m of the opinion there shouldn’t be a maximum limit, there should be a minimum offering generally. In the Humanities, for example, there is leeway for this to become standard. I believe this would help better foster our academic community.

Apart from fulfilling your manifesto promises, what else have you been working on?

Technology is one the key areas I have been working in. It is crucial if we want to provide personalised learning to large numbers. Improving Blackboard has been something I have been working on. I want to see more lectures put online. As I understand it there are no significant obstacles to making such measures commonplace in the future. Audio recordings of lectures, if not video as well, should become standard. This would make it easier to explore other areas of interest, which would benefit the new minor system for example.

Another thing I’d like to look into is seeing if we can accredit some co-curricular activities, so that people can work on things that they really enjoy doing and they would be rewarded for it within their degrees. For instance, Team Formula 1 are a group of engineers that build Formula 1 cars and then race them. That takes alot of time and I think that should be something students are encouraged to do with credits. I think the crucial thing you learn from University is not memorising information but how to think critically.

How about a Uni-link route to Winchester School of Art?

Although this isn’t strictly under my remit, I will say that I believe that the University is poorer for not having a bus connection between Southampton and Winchester.

Finally, have you enjoyed your sabbatical year for far?

I really love my job, working with my team, with staff at the Union, my representatives and the University. Sometimes it can be frustrating waiting for a policy to come to fruition but it’s worth it in the end. I have a very good working relationship with the University and they are typically more than willing to listen, so there is room for me to get even more value for money on behalf of students.


Discussion4 Comments

  1. avatar
    Gabriela Discenza

    Yes there is. In History we are restricted to 6 hours of contact time on our Dissertation with our supervisor. This is because of the fact that its supposed to be an independent piece of work and time constraints for the supervisors who are restricted in the number of students they can take. I really don’t like this way of doing things as sometimes certain topics can be more complex to write a dissertation topic than others.

    Shocked ECS Person

    That’s awful, I never realised that. In ECS we’re told to expect a minimum of half an hour a week, many will spend as much time as the student wants. Surely third year should be about developing academically with experts in the field, you could research and write an essay on your own without spending £3/9/13k on Uni, right?!

  2. avatar

    I agree, it should be about developing academically with a leading specialist in that field. 6 hours adds up to 12 weeks of half an hour appointments. It sounds a bit better like that, but you have to remember they’re pretty strict on it. I’m sure most lecturers would like to give more help on it, but they’re strictly limited on what they can offer and they only give feedback on one chapter of your work. Very much feels like we’re on our own. It seems there are varying standards of supervision and help throughout the University depending on what subject you do. I think its partly because Humanities has far less funding than ECS therefore they have less staff and can’t offer as much help.

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