Leader: Destined to be second best?

August 24, 2007

Is universities' obsession with research now so marked that teaching has lost whatever status it once enjoyed? Two weeks ago we reported the case of retired professor Alan Jenkins, who felt his teaching-focused work had been an obstacle to promotion. Today, a researcher on the first rung of the career ladder has come to the same conclusion - being an excellent teacher, he believes, just doesn't cut the mustard with his superiors.

Two stories do not a trend make. But few readers can seriously doubt that teaching in Britain's universities has an image problem - a problem reinforced rather than dissipated by those earnest statements that institutions routinely trot out, rather too quickly, proclaiming the absolute equality of research and pedagogy. Yes, that's what it says on the tin. But are the contents identifiable as such? No, they are not.

The problem isn't confined to Britain: Harvard's medical faculty is so worried about its academics' reluctance to teach that it has advanced bonuses worth £8 million to induce them to spend more time with their students. The UK's slightly less well-endowed Higher Education Academy has attempted to do something similar with its national teaching fellowships. The funding councils have chipped in £315 million for Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. But while these initiatives might improve learning and spread best practice, they have done little to bolster teaching's status. A few institutions have attempted to tackle the problem head-on and end the disparity between teachers and researchers by putting them in the same job pools and paying them equally.

But however worthwhile, these initiatives ultimately confirm the second-class nature of teaching at the same time as they offer assistance - in much the same way that deprived areas of the country benefit from central government largesse while being designated "poor".

It is difficult to see what can be done in the short term. This is partly because universities lack a means to evaluate systematically an individual's teaching in the way they can his or her research. But fundamentally, and unsurprisingly, the real problem is money. Who benefits directly from excellent teaching? Answer - certainly not universities, which are rewarded according to student numbers and research brilliance. Unfortunately, the status of teaching will improve only when it is in the interests of universities to pay attention to it. And that will only happen when badly tutored students noisily start voting with their feet.

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