Leader: Teaching fare's just deserts

Universities must serve up pedagogy fit for the 21st century or suffer the consequences in reputational terms

August 5, 2010

Two years ago, Alan Gilbert, at that point president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, broke ranks with his Russell Group colleagues to condemn the effect that mass participation and long-term underfunding were having on the quality of undergraduate education, particularly teaching.

Professor Gilbert, who sadly died last week, launched an institutional review after some students uncovered the fact that in social science, they were receiving half as much contact time as their predecessors had 20 years earlier.

He asked whether we could "continue to afford large 'smorgasbord' curricula that offer students abundant choices at an enormous cost in terms of teaching workloads". Today, that question is more pertinent than ever.

Universities are not restaurants, but chef Gordon Ramsay's advice still applies: simplify the menu, go back to basics and make sure you have a signature dish. Universities should concentrate on the basics - teaching and research - and serve only what they are good at.

As funding pressure is stepped up, so too is the rhetoric about the importance of quality teaching. Ministers are fearful for the reputation of the UK university system - described by former Higher Education Academy chief Paul Ramsden in our cover story as "teetering on the edge of complacency". The business secretary, Vince Cable, believes student pressure will deliver better teaching. He said that higher student contributions would force the sector to "take much more seriously the current lack of incentives for good teaching".

A radical idea has been hinted at: linking teaching quality and funding. Given the lack of accord on how to assess good teaching, that prospect sends some into a panic. Recognising teaching in promotions may allow the sector to avoid any such measure being imposed, and the idea that the Quality Assurance Agency should check this would avoid any link to funding.

At present, teaching funding follows volume rather than quality, but a market in fees or more competition for students could change that: would-be students will seek hard evidence that they will get high-quality teaching for their cash. Mr Cable also said it was one of Labour's big failings that it did not "tie the rise in student contributions ... more explicitly to improvements in student satisfaction and teaching excellence". You have been warned.

When it comes to rewarding teaching through promotion, though, there is a big perception gap between vice-chancellors and their staff. Most academics believe teaching comes second to research in promotions, and the data are not encouraging. In research-intensive universities, the damaging view that teaching - and thus, students - is not the priority is prevalent among students.

One idea, suggested by Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, is to encourage teaching-focused universities to run the early years of degrees for research-intensives to improve undergraduate education.

Students and academics deserve to see teaching accorded the same respect and rewards as research, but it would be more edifying if the demand for change came from vice-chancellors, not ministers or students.

Professor Ramsden is right to say that state regulation has never created great universities and will never create a great student experience. It can never foster inspirational teaching, either. Only institutional culture can do that.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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