Excellent idea in theory

November 16, 2007

There is a growing scepticism in higher education about the received meanings of teaching excellence. For example, this year's Higher Education Academy Conference supported a motion that "excellence has become a meaningless concept". After this conference there was some correspondence in The Times Higher about whether the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning programme is having a broader impact on the quality of teaching and learning within the sector.

These meanings have been circulated through policy texts (for instance, The Dearing Report; The Future of Higher Education ), documentation, criteria and procedures for national excellence awards (for instance, National Teaching Fellowship Scheme and the Cetl programme), quality assurance and enhancement mechanisms and networks devoted to improving teaching and learning practices in institutions (for example, "teaching and learning awaydays").

I want to question five key received meanings about teaching excellence we often pay lip service to in our daily lives. It is important to question these meanings to ensure that teaching excellence is subject to critical scrutiny.

First is the concept that teaching excellence is a good thing. It is one of those "hurrah concepts" - something associated with recognising individual potential and supporting human progress - and therefore almost impossible to argue against. What can be more natural and desirable than to want to improve our teaching and reach the very highest standards? Who would not want to sign up to this virtuous project?

The assumed goodness of teaching excellence, however, prevents us from looking at its "dark side" - for example, the way it can foster divisiveness - and its deeply ideological nature.

Second is the idea that teaching excellence is achieved primarily through individual effort: that is, it is excellent individual teachers and institutions that count - those that stand out from the crowd and "make a difference" to their students' futures. This individualising of excellence masks crucial questions relating to the basic material conditions of teaching/learning - for example, fundamental concerns such as institutional resources, staff-to-student ratios and having sufficient time (beyond bureaucratic form-filling) to think seriously about teaching and learning processes.

Next there is the concept that teaching excellence can be "democratised". The received wisdom here is that all institutions can provide teaching excellence and that different forms can have equal value. Institutional differentiation has been encouraged as a policy goal to cater for different student needs and aspirations.

An assumption has been made that different types of institution can offer a particular type of teaching excellence consistent with their history, mission and identity. This "egalitarian" conception of excellence fails to take into consideration the differential status accorded to different institutions within a stratified system of higher education.

Different types of teaching excellence may evolve, therefore, but unless significant policy and funding changes are made it is unlikely that students will have access to an excellence of equal status and weight (both materially and symbolically).

Fourth is the belief that teaching (excellence) is the poor relation of the teaching/research relationship and that focusing on teaching lessens the teaching/research divide. Reclaiming teaching as an important aspect of the academic role seems entirely proper at first sight in our research assessment exercise-driven culture.

However, buying into this notion means supporting the increasing atomisation and fragmentation of academic practice as evidenced by the rise of "teaching-only" contracts and the relocation of aspects of teaching and learning support (pastoral support; study skills) to centralised institutional units.

Far from lessening the teaching/research divide, teaching and research have become "rival ideologies" (Barnett, 2003) and separate initiatives and funding streams have intensified the distance between them. There is also evidence to suggest that policies devoted to research and teaching are contradictory: they work against each other to obstruct positive change (Trowler et al, 2005).

Last, there is the idea that teaching excellence can be readily captured, disseminated and transferred. We are encouraged to view excellence as something that can be unproblematically identified and passed on for other teachers to follow.

Here the maxim "I recognise excellent teaching when I see it" comes to mind, but maybe this says more about the observer than the observed. Research studies that have sought to distil the "essence" of excellent teachers for general consumption rarely scrutinise the selection processes that identified these teachers as excellent in the first place (Skelton, 2005). Policy texts continue to adopt simplistic understandings of educational change ("deliver"; "transfer" and so on) that underestimate the highly context-specific nature of teaching situations.

We need to question these received meanings about teaching excellence in order to promote a more open dialogue about its possibilities and potential.

We need a robust public debate about teaching excellence in higher education and the broader purposes it is meant to serve. We have to recognise that teaching excellence is a contested concept and it is only right and proper, given the culture of higher education, that it is treated seriously, as a subject worthy of our intellectual curiosity.

If the democratisation of teaching excellence is to become a possibility, then all higher education institutions need to be funded equally. Mechanisms such as the RAE should be abandoned because these perpetuate inequalities and "reputational" understandings of excellence.

The culture of measurement that has trivialised teaching excellence in recent years (for instance, teaching quality scores) and a new language of business and commerce (for example, economy, efficiency and effectiveness) that has turned it into a product need to be replaced by appropriate forms of judgment and expression. Ministers can offer a lead here in "talking up" excellence.

Finally, we need a vibrant and pluralistic pedagogical research community to explore teaching excellence from different vantage points using different standards of judgment. This will ensure that teaching excellence becomes a matter worthy of serious intellectual intent rather than a performative object of policy.


Barnett, R. (2003) Beyond All Reason. Living with Ideology in the University . Buckingham: SRHE/OUP.

Trowler, P., Fanghanel, J., Wareham, T. (2005) Freeing the chi of change: the Higher Education Academy and enhancing teaching and learning in higher education. Studies in Higher Education , 30:4-44.

Skelton, A. (2005) Understanding Teaching Excellence in Higher Education : Towards a Critical Approach . Abingdon: Routledge.

Alan Skelton is a senior lecturer in higher education at the School of Education, Sheffield University. He is the editor of International Perspectives on Teaching Excellence in Higher Education (Routledge).

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