Leader: Just who are you here for?

Education suffers because teaching gets no respect. That must change, and academics can start with themselves

September 10, 2009

We all eulogise good teachers. Unfortunately, we don't really mean it, not when it means backing it up with hard cash. Well, it's a vocation, isn't it? People who love to teach don't do it for the money or recognition, do they? Research, now you're talking. That's where job satisfaction and promotion can be found. And, of course, that's where the money is.

Both research and teaching are central to the mission of universities, but most scholars are attracted to an academic career by the research. And it is through research that they get the kicks and the kudos. For many, teaching is just one of the pesky annoyances that they have to do as part of the real, more interesting job.

Although research and teaching are certainly complementary, the skills they often demand are not. The introspection of research sits uneasily with the extroversion teaching often demands.

As Tim Birkhead says in our cover story this week, UK higher education is set up so that the teaching of undergraduates is fundamental, yet we give them only a superficial education. Students are expected to learn how to recall information, but not how to synthesise it. When Socrates said "I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think", he had a point. Some academics do not teach students how to think. But worse than that, they don't really want to teach them at all.

Teaching, it seems, is thought of as a nice accessory, the matching shoes for that sparkly research frock. When the Government announced 10,000 extra university places this summer, it didn't allocate any teaching money for them. What does that say about valuing teaching? And what about those universities that took the places without the extra cash? What are they saying? That they don't need money for teaching, that they can educate undergraduates at a cut-price rate? The unit of funding has always been sacrosanct. Does this mark the beginning of the end? Will universities in future be asked to bid against each other to see which of them can provide an education more cheaply?

Our system is driven by money - or rather the lack of it. The prized academics are those who can secure research grants for their institution. Bring in the cash and you get the rewards and recognition. Universities then put their star researchers in their shop window to lure the students, who come in only to find themselves on the shop floor being served not by the master but by a procession of his or her postdocs.

Ah, but students are not customers, you say. Unfortunately, they feel that when they pay something called a tuition fee, they deserve to receive some tuition in return. Professor Birkhead is correct when he says that undergraduates must be reminded that coming to university is like turning up for an appointment with a personal trainer: you are told how to get fit, but you have to do the work yourself to get the desired results. That is certainly true, but students also have the right to expect their personal trainers to be motivated and inspirational, and to focus their attentions on them and not on their own personal fitness plan.


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