A club no one wants to join

April 9, 1999

Just weeks from its launch date, the Institute for Learning and Teaching is in trouble. Alison Utley reports

It is hard to object to the Institute for Learning and Teaching, a body dreamt up nearly two years ago by Lord Dearing to raise the profile of university teaching, improve the quality of learning and set standards of good professional practice within academia.

Indeed the initiative has been warmly welcomed by the vast majority of "stakeholders" in higher education, and there has been widespread support for the institute and its aims. But now, just weeks away from the planned launch date, a major obstacle has presented itself which, if not resolved soon, threatens to destabilise the initiative.

Six weeks ago the sector was presented with a consultation paper outlining in detail the routes to membership of the ILT.

Membership will not be compulsory, but it is expected to become the norm for both new and existing teaching staff in higher education.

It is likely to be a condition of promotion in the near future and could become an important element of university funding formulas. So far so good.

But the responses flooding into the ILT on its latest document are highly critical, with objections being raised across the sector.

The objectors, some of whom detect the "dead hand of the QAA", believe that a near consensus that had been reached painstakingly since summer 1997 has now been overturned.

In its place the sector is being offered, in the words of Glasgow University's response, an alternative that "may lead to the failure of the institute at an early stage".

Anxieties focus on the complexity of a framework of 24 accredited "teaching outcomes" that must be demonstrated by lecturers in order to gain ILT membership (see box).

The framework is rejected by many as a mechanistic NVQ-style approach that is wholly inappropriate within higher education because there is no underpinning scholarly basis.

Richard Roberts, professor of theology at Lancaster University, said: "As a teacher of critical thinking working in a university, it is my duty to question the coherence and legitimacy of arbitrary authorityI why should I conform my personal and intellectual identity in a scheme of comprehensive alienation, other than through fear of the threat (explicitly present in the papers that you have circulated) that I will not be able to be promoted or move from my present post within the UK system unless I conform?" The University of Glasgow says it doubts that more than "a very small minority" of teachers in higher education will be prepared to put together the evidence described, or to pay Pounds 50 a year for the privilege of doing so every three years.

"Those who give high priority to teaching will know that they do what is necessary to update and to develop further their skills without the time-consuming requirement of providing evidence of the form described ... those who do not give a high priority will not even read the requirements," said Professor Roberts.

The Association of University Teachers, a big supporter of the ILT, has also been highly critical of the teaching outcomes approach, which, it says, "fails completely to take account of the diversity of support for learning and teaching".

The AUT also points out that it would be unrealistic to expect academics with heavy management or research responsibilities to be able to meet the criteria, thereby excluding large numbers of academic staff from ILT membership.

The National Union of Students said the complex proposals would not be acceptable to higher education professionals or be effective in safeguarding student learning.

President Andrew Pakes said: "It will not be taken seriously. The key to the success of the ILT is clear and simple standards without which lecturers should not be let loose on students. There has been too much fudging of the original principles suggested by the Dearing committee and fleshed out by the Booth report."

The Booth report recommended that academics could gain accreditation for their teaching by focusing on just six outcomes rather than the current 24. It was also underpinned by professional values and scholarship, which critics say is not the case with the new proposals.

David Baume, of the centre for higher education practice at the Open University, describes the proposed standard as a horrible shock.

"This loses the base of professional values and scholarship that was a widely praised feature of the Booth report," he said, referring to Clive Booth's earlier accreditation framework, which critics believe has now been abandoned.

Mr Baume added: "It is so confused as to be inoperable, and as a result of its confusion it certainly won't assure standards."

He said the Booth report was very widely supported: "What is the point of consulting people then ignoring what they say?" Gus Pennington, chair of the ILT's accreditation committee whose task it will be to analyse and respond to the sector's comments, acknowledges that some of the concerns being raised are "entirely legitimate". He anticipates that the current framework will need some revision. He has extended the consultation period but stresses that by and large people still welcome the idea of accredited routes to ILT membership.

Professor Pennington said: "I have every expectation that the committee will find a number of the responses very helpful when we review this initial framework. But let us not forget that higher education has been given the chance of self-regulation - unlike other sectors of education. What we do not want to do is throw away the mandate to establish an independent professional body."

The worry is that if the institute fails to gain enough members within its first two to three years, politicians will intervene and impose standards.

Professor Pennington believes that scenario is a long way off. He believes many of the objections are a result of a misunderstanding of the ILT's position. He understands, he said, the fear of research-led institutions that gathering evidence will be too expensive and time-consuming, and will take resources away from research.

But he said that somehow people have the idea that experienced lecturing staff are going to have to go on training courses or provide the ILT with hundreds of pieces of paper. "This just isn't the case. All we are asking is that they provide us with evidence."

Whether the evidence will consist of 24 "teaching outcomes" or whether the final revision will rely more on the professional judgement of experienced academics remains to be seen. However, decisions will need to be made very soon. The ILT is scheduled to be launched in June, and an accreditation framework is supposed to be up and running in the new academic year.

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