A club is only as good as the members it attracts

May 14, 1999

The ILT must reflect the diversity within its membership and acknowledge those with proven track records, writes Clive Booth

There is one sure way to success for the Institute for Learning and Teaching: make an academic's membership of the institute a condition for being entered in the research assessment exercise. Perverse? Not if it is true that excellence in teaching is as closely associated with excellence in research as many would argue. But this is a leap of imagination that is very unlikely to become a reality. So if the ILT is to be launched successfully, what needs to be done?

Dearing's laudable attempt to create a counterweight to the RAE through the ILT was never going to be easy to implement. It is quite reasonable for individual academics and their institutions to ask what is in it for them. If creating a professional body for teachers in higher education was such a good idea, why did it not happen years ago?

In 1997, I was asked to lead a planning group responsible for devising an accreditation scheme for higher education teachers. When the planning group consulted on its preferred scheme in early 1998 the reaction was overwhelmingly favourable. The replies included nearly every higher education institution and many other interested bodies. More than 95 per cent of respondents supported the idea of accreditation, and 77 per cent agreed with the approach adopted by the group. When the group was disbanded a year ago it was able to hand over to the embryonic ILT a package that commanded broad support.

Even so, it was clear that the consensus was a fragile one and depended on the skill with which different views about the purposes and style of accreditation could be accommodated in the course of implementation. A significant minority of respondents, for example, thought the focus on learning and teaching was too narrow. Why should accreditation not also encompass "academic practice", recognising professionalism in scholarship, research supervision and academic administration?

Our planning group faced three tricky issues. How should the ILT accommodate the great diversity of the teaching role within the sector, and, given the pace of innovation brought about by information technology, how should future changes in the role be handled?

How could accreditation provide a framework equally suitable for novices and experienced teachers, and how could we get on board significant numbers of established academic staff without submitting them to demeaning or burdensome processes?

What is the appropriate balance between national prescription and local flexibility? Linked to this final point, what style of accreditation would be suitable and how far should the scheme lean towards the competence-based approaches to be found in national vocational qualifications and how far towards more traditional modes based on professional judgement?

We emphasised shared values and the centrality of subject knowledge, and we saw "academic practice" as being a valid concept, which the accreditation process should be extended to cover as soon as possible.

Hostility towards the competencies model of professional standards was widespread. Many academics do not believe that the essential ingredients of the teaching role, still less the broader academic role, can be expressed in the language of the competencies movement. Moreover, the preparation of a detailed list of professional standards is seen as leading to a mechanistic "tick-box" approach to assessment. Other professions have shown that this need not be so, but the ILT has to explain to a sceptical audience that the ILT standards can be assessed in a light-touch, professional manner.

We attempted to create a national framework that specified five key areas: planning, teaching, assessment, evaluation and academic administration. We stopped short of specifying detailed requirements within each area. Instead we gave examples of the kinds of activity that each area might involve. Having a loose national framework of this kind would not lay claim to the pretence that academics in membership of the ILT fit into one narrow template of academic competence.

The problem with the latest, now abandoned, ILT proposal, with its 24 criteria, was not just that it attempted too much detailed prescription. It would also have created a formidable-looking set of hurdles for experienced staff to achieve and retain membership.

Of course the ILT must set high standards. But it needs to show how people with years of successful teaching behind them can achieve membership without having to spend many hours assembling "evidence". The ILT has a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It must not blow it.

Clive Booth was vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University. He writes in a personal capacity.

Teaching, page 38

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