V-cs have brought the teaching excellence framework on themselves

It is wrong for universities to ignore learning, says Anthony Seldon

November 19, 2015
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The higher education Green Paper has already stirred considerable controversy. Few aspects have caused more concern than what it has to say about the teaching excellence framework (TEF), with Andrew Hamilton, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, warning that it could send negative messages to the world about the quality of teaching at British universities. If any other v-cs agree with him, they have only themselves to blame for failing to provide the quality of leadership of teaching that their students deserve.

I am deeply proud to be a vice-chancellor, having started at the University of Buckingham two months ago. I am very conscious that the UK’s universities rank among the strongest in the world and that the sector as a whole is a shining beacon of excellence. My criticisms, based on 20 years of leading fast-improving and academically excellent schools, are designed to strengthen universities.

Universities have given insufficient attention to one half of their “higher education” description. They are very keen on the “higher” part, but have given insufficient thought to “education”. At worst, “higher” has meant superior, with too little sense that universities are part of an educational continuum, building on the work of schools. Universities could learn much from schools, not the least that excellent teaching and learning do not happen automatically, but have to be learned and developed, as in any other profession. Schoolteachers have an extensive period of initial teacher training, then regular lesson observation, mentoring, self-appraisal and continuous professional development. Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes well on how university teachers can similarly learn.

Another key lesson from schools is that heavy inspection regimes, as those of Ofsted at its worst can be, are counterproductive, bureaucratic, demoralising, and lead to dull and formulaic teaching. As profoundly as I believe that teaching at all universities needs to improve to the standards that can be found in parts of all universities, I do not favour heavy-handed external bodies being created to achieve it. Rather, universities must become self-improving institutions, with external bodies having a very light touch for all those who prove themselves to be worthy of it (there should be no assumption that the old and the eminent are necessarily any better than the new and the less prestigious).

Teaching and learning must focus on three key areas. The students should be engaged, they should make progress and the academic should evaluate and give constructive feedback on their work. All academics can learn how to improve at these, but to do so requires a certain humility and a willingness to learn. It should be made clear that it is no longer acceptable for any academic who is involved in teaching to remain aloof from learning. No one would accept legal advice from a lawyer, or medical advice from a doctor, who had not been trained and was not part of a regular professional development process.

All universities should immediately step up several gears in their commitment to professional teaching. There is much to be learned from the Higher Education Academy about improving teaching. Institutions could develop their own qualifications, as the University of Buckingham is planning to do from 2016 with its “teaching excellence qualification”. Every university should have a leader on its senior team appointed expressly to oversee the quality of teaching and learning, as happens in schools, and heads of faculty must see themselves as leaders of education and not just as leaders of research. Student feedback should be absolutely at the heart of the entire evaluation process. Undergraduates know better than anyone, and certainly better than outside bodies, who are the good lecturers and teachers.

Vice-chancellors have only themselves to blame that the government has now felt the need to impose the TEF. The lack of leadership on education and teaching from some v-cs in the past should not be an excuse for their inactivity in the future. Universities need less, not more, bureaucracy and government interference, but they must show themselves worthy of the autonomy by providing excellent teaching across the board.

Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

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