Leader: Framework built on first principles

February 24, 2006

The first instinct of many academics faced with the National Professional Standards Framework - if they consider it at all - will be to scoff. Laying down a single set of meaningful standards for such diverse institutions in an ever-expanding range of subjects verges on the impossible, and academics are famously reluctant to be told how to do their job. But this week's report is a brave first attempt to plug a gap identified in the higher education White Paper three years ago - and a defence against the introduction of something more prescriptive.

The White Paper promised professional teaching standards by 2006 as the basis for accredited training for all staff. The new framework is not only too general to be the basis of anything to alarm free spirits, but its authors in the Higher Education Academy have stressed that it is designed for adaptation by individual universities. The whole framework fits into four pages, and anyone hoping for a description of what good teaching entails will be disappointed. For some, this will be proof that the two-year exercise was a waste of time and money, and that the standards are the first in the world because other countries recognise the futility of trying to define the indefinable. However, the document has more to say about academics' responsibilities than the nitty-gritty of lecturing. The five professional values, for example, include a "commitment to encouraging participation in higher education, acknowledging diversity and promoting equality of opportunity". That is the nearest the authors have come to a political statement, but there are also potentially demanding expectations of continuing professional development and familiarity with recent pedagogic research.

Paul Ramsden, the HEA chief executive, admits that the authors of the framework "walked a tightrope" between vagueness and excessive regulation.

The outcome should be seen as a work in progress, not a finished article.

However much academics might wish to be left to get on with the job, the arrival of top-up fees is bound to encourage students (and their parents) to be more demanding about tuition provided by universities. A workable framework will be a valuable reminder that the spotlight will fall on quality, as well as quantity.

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