Knowledge is not enough...

...lecturers must be able to impart what they know. Craig Mahoney, head of the HEA, believes training can make any academic a more effective and inspired teacher

July 14, 2011

"When I moved to England from Australia, I was excited at the prospect of undertaking the postgraduate certificate in higher education," writes Francesca Haig, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Chester, in a 2009 article for the Higher Education Academy's Academy Exchange magazine.

"In Australia, such qualifications were not required for academic posts, and I thought that the emphasis England placed on teaching qualifications indicated a regard for teaching, usually so undervalued in academia (although not by students). Colleagues in England laughed ominously at my enthusiasm; such qualifications, I soon learnt, are commonly viewed as yet another hoop through which academics must now jump."

Haig's comments struck a chord with me, both as someone who has spent most of my career teaching and researching in higher education, and as someone who, like Haig, came to the UK from Australia.

I have always loved learning. When I arrived in the UK in 1986 to complete a master's degree at the University of Birmingham, the assessment processes were, for me, secondary. I wanted the knowledge. I was hungry to learn. I always attended classes, even during periods of heavy snow when others were apparently unable to make it. I spent huge amounts of time in the library, talking to fellow students, engaging with academic staff, always making myself available for research and the applied work that staff were doing, because I wanted to know everything I could. This is a feeling that has never gone away.

I don't think I am unusual in this. And I suspect that a love of learning in part explains why academics can get so impatient with the initial teacher training courses offered by universities. If a course leads to disappointment and frustration, or is seen as an exercise in box-ticking, then of course people who just want to get on with exciting and inspiring that same love of learning and knowledge in their students are going to complain.

Any story in Times Higher Education on teaching qualifications sparks lively online debate. So, an academic called David posts that "the 'pedagogy' crap rammed down the throats of new lecturers on probation is worse than useless". Another academic, Barbara, counters with the comment that "some lecturers...know their subject inside out but unfortunately cannot engage the student as they have no teaching skill awareness". This goes on for a few days and then the agenda moves on. The lively debate is between people who have a strong and valid viewpoint but do not feel confident enough to give their full names.

I have been at the HEA for just over a year and during that time I've spoken to hundreds of "Davids" and "Barbaras". I have heard many criticisms of higher education teaching courses, including the charge that they are patronising or too generic, that they take up a lot of time (that could be spent teaching!) and that as everyone seems to pass them anyway they are barely credible.

But I have heard many positive reports too. Having the opportunity to interrogate critically the teaching practices that many of us take for granted is one. The chance to work closely with colleagues from other disciplines - and perhaps, thereby, to share knowledge and resources and improve the courses we teach - is another. The opportunity to receive constructive feedback on teaching techniques, the wealth of good pedagogic research, the foundation for longer-term development of teaching practice...there are many positives.

Life was simpler Down Under when I completed a teaching qualification in the late 1970s. In my opinion, Australia has always valued the development of teaching skills and pedagogy far more than the UK, at all levels of education. The course I took covered conceptual areas such as psychology, sociology, philosophy, linguistics and educational theory. It taught applied skills such as working with new technologies and "microteaching" (when teaching is filmed and critiqued by peers); we shadowed qualified colleagues who taught; we learned about team teaching and about working in diverse learning environments such as open-plan spaces where didactic delivery is impossible, and self-paced, individualised learning is encouraged. It gave me a broad perspective on how to create and manage a positive learning environment for students.

Alongside this professional development as an academic and teacher, I was also heavily involved in Scouting. I took many leadership roles in supporting the personal development of large numbers of young people, much of this in outdoor environments. I was imparting survival skills; skills that must be understood and used by the individual; and skills that encouraged self-reliance.

In sport, I was both a professional player and a coach; a student and a teacher. Here again, I was making use of my teaching abilities to enable learning and development in others so that they could become discerning users of their own skills and independent learners. All of this has helped me to help others to learn.

Teaching, and the business of qualification, has been high on the agenda of UK governments over the past year. The rise in tuition fees in England and the increase in what Scottish universities can charge students from other parts of the UK will undoubtedly provoke students - who have already made their passion clear - to ask more questions about what they are getting for their money. It is logical to assume that some of those questions will be about who is teaching them. Higher education institutions know this and are responding. I have been invited to speak at the learning and teaching conferences of many higher education institutions this year, and I know first-hand how concerned colleagues are to get their teaching focus right.

I have stated publicly that higher education needs to prepare and qualify its teachers. This is a contentious view - "pompous" and "self-serving" are among the milder criticisms - but it is right for students. Following last month's White Paper for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for England will now consider ways in which institutions might publish anonymised information on the teaching qualifications, fellowships and expertise of staff. I hope this happens quickly. I do not understand why teaching should be different from other professions. Nurses, psychologists, architects, electricians, airline pilots, accountants, state school teachers - they all have a choice of where to study but they cannot practise without accreditation from their professional bodies and engaging in ongoing professional development.

This accreditation is a recognisable - and checkable - indication that a standard has been met and a quality achieved. It is reassuring to those of us on the outside, a guide to where we might find excellence. And as the parent of a daughter about to enter higher education, with all that opportunity ahead of her, I am advising her to research the teaching quality at the universities she is interested in.

Some may view teaching qualifications as a hoop through which they must jump, but teaching courses need to matter because of the knowledge they pass on; they should not be seen simply as an assessment hurdle to overcome. If we are to give greater credibility and status to teaching, it must be widely recognised as valuable by both students and university leaders. However, the metrics to give effective judgement on what is good teaching are, as yet, too fragile. So is the research evidence that those qualified to teach are better at creating positive learning environments and enhancing student learning than those not qualified to teach.

The anecdotal evidence does exist. The people I have met over my career in academia who have undertaken a qualification to teach in higher education have almost always been better teachers, at least early on in their careers. But because I or someone else says so is not good enough. We must procure the empirical evidence from controlled studies, demonstrating to politicians, vice-chancellors, academics, students, parents and the general public that to be qualified is to be expected, to continually update is a given, and that providing students with outstanding teachers benefits everyone.

For teaching in higher education, there is no Kitemark as such, nor in my view should there be. There is, however, a framework - the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) - from which universities and other higher education institutions can develop courses for their staff.

Briefly, this framework establishes a threshold for the approval of professional development activity that is related to university teaching. Institutions can use it as a reference point when they set up and run programmes for staff who teach and support student learning. It means that "David" and "Barbara", doing their initial training at different universities, can be confident that they are working within a shared set of standards that apply across similar courses throughout the UK. Their heads of department and deans know that although the support offered to their colleagues can take different forms, the thresholds that the staff reach will be comparable. And prospective students - from all over the world - are reassured that the UK puts care into thinking about how it trains its higher education teachers.

Many institutions seek external validation of their approach to professional development against the framework. The HEA alone accredits 378 programmes in 140 higher education institutions across the UK. The framework is not, and was never intended to be, mandatory. There are other routes to accreditation too, which the HEA welcomes. Furthermore, I do not believe that the HEA is the only organisation that can deliver accreditation. But I do believe that the UKPSF provides a great foundation for qualifying staff. With its origins and ownership in the sector, it has the potential to be a key indicator of UK higher education's commitment to teaching and supporting learning, giving confidence that minimum standards have been met.

In November 2010, the HEA launched a review of the framework, in consultation with the higher education sector. We found broad general support for the principle that those who teach in higher education should be appropriately qualified. What is ripe for debate is how this might operate in practice in a sector that is richly diverse, and where institutional autonomy is both highly prized and highly beneficial to students.

A common criticism of courses such as the PGCHE is that they are generic. Recently, I spoke at a discipline-specific learning and teaching conference where I was warned beforehand that the delegates were quite negative about generic teaching courses, and would not be in a mood to hear about their virtues. I was quite surprised by this: having worked as a discipline specialist in universities for more than 20 years, I felt positive about the benefits of sharing experience and scholarship with colleagues from other disciplines in a generic setting.

At the same time, there is much evidence to show the desirability of discipline-specific staff development.

Shan Wareing, dean of learning and teaching development and head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design at the University of the Arts London, has researched the differences between subject-specific and generic training. "The perception of discipline relevance - or irrelevance - is often very important to participants' attitude towards these programmes, and also to the extent to which their heads of department support the activity," she says.

There are benefits to both approaches, and the HEA's work reflects this. Much of our provision is at subject and discipline level. The HEA offers workshops, seminars, resources and support delivered by subject specialists. But many experiences are of course common across disciplines and there is also a place for generic and thematic learning and teaching materials and support.

I said earlier that one of the complaints about PGCHE courses and their equivalent was the time commitment they required. There is some variation in the way that courses are delivered, and this allows participants to choose the course that is best for them. For some academics, an intensive course over a few days might suit; for others, e-learning might be preferable. I think it would be helpful if such options were more common. This is an area that requires more development, but there are also huge opportunities.

So although I advocate a consistent approach, I do not advocate a one-size-fits-all policy - not in the context of whether courses should be generic or discipline-focused, nor in their length, nor in the places in which they are delivered. Flexibility is key to all of this in terms of the support made available to academics to develop their teaching needs to work for them, for their institution and for their subject.

When I think about the higher education "brand" in the UK and in Australia, I return to my view that in Australia teaching is taken more seriously. I know that not everyone likes to describe higher education in marketing terms, but I think it is time to be realistic. It is easy for us to sit back and congratulate ourselves on the number of international students entering UK higher education - almost one in five students on UK campuses is from overseas. But if we are able to speak with a unified voice about the benefits of our system for preparing higher education teachers, it will help to make us attractive to prospective students, from the UK and abroad. We should also consider the growing number of UK campuses and programmes being delivered overseas. How do we guarantee a consistent learning experience for students studying abroad? Giving the people who teach them support and a consistent training programme helps.

UK higher education is a success story. But we are facing intense competition, especially in the current environment of fee changes and economic constraints. What we all want, after all, is for UK higher education to flourish and to continue to attract world-class students and academics. Providing a comprehensible and comprehensive framework for developing teaching is part of that.

Above all, taking teaching seriously means looking after the academics who provide that teaching, so that they in turn can look after their students and inspire in them the same love of learning that has enriched my life. The student learning experience will be all the stronger if we get this right.

Teach the teachers: the decades-long drive towards qualifications for all lecturers

The landmark Dearing Report of 1997 was a key driver of the development of qualifications for academics teaching in UK higher education, writes Rebecca Attwood.

In the 1970s and 1980s, induction courses for new lecturers tended to be short, unaccredited and unassessed. By the time of Dearing, just over half of academics with teaching responsibilities had received training in pedagogy at some stage.

But according to figures cited by the Dearing committee, only about one-third of researchers who taught had had training, and the majority of academics were offered training only at the start of their career.

Dearing advised those universities without training courses to develop them immediately. For the UK to stay at the forefront of higher education teaching, both initial training and periodic updating throughout an academic career were needed, it argued.

There was widespread support for accreditation that would ensure that training programmes met national standards, the report said.

Such systems already existed. As the Dearing Report noted, the Staff and Educational Development Association piloted a teacher accreditation scheme in 1992. By 2002, more than 3,100 teachers had been accredited.

According to reports in the Times Higher Education Supplement in 1997, the Dearing committee considered a compulsory training programme for all lecturers, but this was rejected because it was thought to be too unpopular with lecturers.

Instead, it recommended that universities devise their own courses for higher education teacher training that would then be accredited by an outside agency, the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which was formed in 2000.

"The necessary recognition of teaching in higher education will only be achieved through a national scheme...to which all institutions voluntarily commit," said the committee's report.

The institute, along with its accreditation mandate, was later incorporated into the Higher Education Academy, which was set up in 2004. Today, many new lecturers in the majority of universities undertake an HEA-accredited programme.

When the current head of the HEA, Craig Mahoney, took up post in the summer of 2010, he said he would like to see every member of university teaching staff - and certainly every new member of staff - hold a teaching qualification. But in November, he told a conference that even when universities required staff on probation to gain a qualification, the rule was not always enforced because research could be given priority.

The Browne Review on the future of higher education, published in autumn 2010, called for such qualifications to become compulsory for new academics.

"It will be a condition of receipt of income...for the costs of learning that institutions require all new academics with teaching responsibilities to undertake a teaching training qualification accredited by the HE Academy, and that the option to gain such a qualification is made available to all staff - including researchers and postgraduate students - with teaching responsibilities," the report said.

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