Letter: Quality straits (1)

September 7, 2001

Two major areas in the quality assurance debate have been left essentially untouched.

The external examining system remains unchanged and thus, also, deeply flawed. It could have become the business of a separate agency. A shift to genuinely institutionally anonymous external assessment could have given an assurance of quality in teaching and research unequalled in the academic world.

The second area is perhaps the most fundamental: staff training. Universities have fought to retain educational research and teacher training as appropriate higher education activities but remain resolutely unconvinced of the value of this work as applied to their own teaching and the development and enhancement of the teaching skills of their own staff. The doctrine remains wholly ingrained that gaining a degree is sufficient for teaching at degree level and that holding a PhD is all but sufficient for doctoral and research supervision.

This is, of course, manifest educational nonsense. Through other developments, universities are now much more aware of the crucially close relationship between teaching and assessment. The hard fact has yet to be faced that completing a degree gives one no insight into assessment principles or practice and the student experience of an examining board halts, at worst, at a viva.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described experience as like suddenly waking on the stairs, not knowing how one had arrived at this step or how many steps remained to be climbed. We populate our university staff common rooms with Emersonian somnambulists and advise them only to follow the stumbling gait of those who have shaped the armchairs before them.

It is true, of course, that most of us can teach a little, but that describes the problem rather than its solution. Teaching and assessment require their own learning, and quality can only be finally assured when universities wake up to the need to treat these skills as additional to subject learning. Internalisation of quality depends on properly professionalising higher education learning. The Institute for Learning and Teaching is not the automatic answer here.

No self-respecting university education department would award the postgraduate certificate in education to candidates without direct and regular observation of the individual doing, successfully, what is an intellectually demanding, personal and practical job.

Andrew Morgan

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