Students are forever being asked what they think about the teaching they receive. Student surveys, measures of satisfaction and engagement, websites that allow them to rate their tutor on a scale of one to five – there’s no shortage of options for the student with a point of view or an axe to grind.
But what do those responsible for the teaching think about it? They are, it’s fair to say, a group less surveyed. Which is why this year, in place of our usual University Workplace Survey, we’ve zeroed in on teaching – a topic firmly on the political agenda.
The findings are discussed in depth in our cover story, and one thing is clear: teaching is, as you would expect, an absolutely fundamental part of academics’ working lives.
Contrary to the narrative that scholars care only about their research, the 1,000 respondents to our survey told us that they are, on the whole, just as passionate about teaching, and are likely to spend more of their working day on it than any other activity.
There are, inevitably, problems. Class sizes, changing student attitudes and grave concerns about attempts to measure teaching quality all trouble those we spoke to.
Some sense a shift of status, from research-active scholars to “teachers” in the more traditional, schoolroom instructor sense of the word. “University teaching should be based on the research academics carry out – everything else can be found on the internet” is the pithy comment from one respondent.
At a time when universities the world over are under increasing pressure to improve, and perhaps professionalise, their approach to teaching, the findings of our survey offer some surprising insights.
One of the most obvious ways to incentivise good teaching is to put in place, and then use, clearly defined promotion tracks for academics who excel in this area and devote their time to it.
And yet, when asked if it was possible to win promotion by virtue of good teaching, 47 per cent of academics and 50 per cent of administrative staff responding to our survey said that it was not. If they’re right, this is terrible. If they’re wrong, it’s terrible that this is the perception in their institutions.
Our analysis contains a host of other insights, including more on institutional attitudes to teaching, on students, on standards, and on the use and misuse of technology.
It also gauges the current feeling among UK respondents to the teaching excellence framework.
This attempt to measure teaching quality on a national basis, part of the Higher Education and Research Bill currently making its way through Parliament, has been hugely controversial from the outset. Its mix of metrics – student satisfaction, dropout rates and graduate salaries – has been ridiculed. Most people agree with its goal of incentivising a focus on teaching quality at a time of growing participation and rising personal investment in higher education, but commentators and university leaders are all but united in criticising its construction. Writing recently in Times Higher Education, Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, observed that this “is not renegade opinion, but rather the overwhelming view of those actually involved in higher education”. Universities have submitted to the plans, he said, because “the government has us over a barrel” by linking the TEF to tuition fees and, potentially, the ability to recruit international students.
Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, writes in this week’s THE that it takes “approximately a second’s thought” to conclude that “none of these metrics would tell one whether a university actually teaches well”.
So do those at the coalface agree? The short answer is “yes”. Only 4 per cent of academics who responded, and 6 per cent of administrators, believe that the TEF will accurately assess teaching quality. And, perhaps more importantly, only 12 and 18 per cent, respectively, feel that it will improve it. In a short commentary that we publish alongside Wolf’s analysis, Lord Browne of Madingley, the architect of the higher education reforms instigated in 2010, praises the current bill for completing many of the recommendations made by his eponymous review, including “linking teaching excellence with fees charged to students”.
When universities and vice-chancellors oppose reforms, it’s an easy – and not entirely unfair – riposte that, as Browne puts it, they are “too much like a club where the rules are made for [the members’] benefit”. But it’s much harder to make this argument stick when the criticism comes directly from the academic rank and file.