A message with bottle

May 14, 1999

The AUT meets in Scarborough tomorrow. Alison Utley asks the leadership how it will defend its staunch support of the new Institute for Learning and Teaching against sceptics who want to pull the plug.

Will this week's assurance of a lighter touch from the new Institute for Learning and Teaching be enough to appease sceptical council members of the Association of University Teachers meeting tomorrow in Scarborough?

The meeting will decide whether AUT members will throw their collective weight behind the new institute or throw in the towel in protest over further intrusions in to their profession.

Some grass-roots members are calling for a boycott, which could sound the death knell for the institute, dreamed up nearly two years ago by Lord Dearing to widespread applause from both students and academics.

The aim was to raise the profile and status of university teaching at a time when research seemed to attract all the attention. But without the backing of ordinary academics, the ILT cannot succeed in its aims.

The framework it proposed earlier this year attracted widespread derision (see THES April 9 1999) because the institute's membership requirements were seen as too complex and ultimately unworkable by most academics.

This week the ILT announced that it has listened to the criticisms and that the intended approach - which would require members to demonstrate 24 accredited teaching "outcomes'' - will probably be dropped in favour of a much lighter touch. But has the damage already been done?

The danger now, according to those people working behind the scenes at the AUT to get the institute up and running, is that academics will over-react and pull the plug rather than work to get it right.

Assistant general secretary Paul Cottrell said: "We have to convince our council that the institute is listening to all the critical responses and is determined to gain back lost ground.'' "If our members are prepared to give the institute another chance then I am confident that our original aims - to lift our professional standing and improve the status of university teaching - can be achieved."

Mr Cottrell has been a strong supporter of the institute from the outset but he may have a tough job to do tomorrow.

Jeremy Toner of Leeds University AUT, for example, will take some convincing. "In my view the AUT should form a coalition with universities to try and kill this off," he said.

Mr Toner was reacting to the membership requirements, which expected academics to demonstrate competence in 24 different teaching-related skills. He said these would result in lecturers spending all their time compiling the evidence rather than doing the teaching.

He also objects to the principle of accredited training for university teachers. "This is just another layer of bureaucracy and is an unnecessary imposition,'' he said. If universities are able to award their own degrees to students they ought to be allowed to be in charge of training their own staff.

Janet Blackman of Hull University AUT agreed. "This is just another careerist move by a few academics. It results in the subdivision of teaching from scholarship and research, which is wrong. "It is the thin end of the wedge, a further move towards teaching-only contracts.'' So can the ILT be made to work?

Ms Blackman is sceptical. "Maybe, but I would prefer the AUT to disassociate itself," she said.

George Reeves, vice-president of Newcastle AUT, also favours distance from the initiative. "I say we should not co-operate, the whole concept is a waste of time and money and further detracts from the purpose of teaching and research.'' So what is to be done?

Birmingham AUT member Mark Ericson said the AUT executive ought to be eating some humble pie.

"They have sold us this, I'd like to know how they are going to put a positive spin on it now,'' he said.

But the AUT will continue to put a positive spin on the institute because it truly believes it can be made to work. As Mr Cottrell points out, the alternatives are much worse.

"We could find the government imposing standards on us if we don't get this right,'' he said. "Much of the resistance is understandable but it is knee-jerk reaction. We can repair the damage and it would be just daft to walk away now.'' Instead of abandoning the institute, the AUT's strategy is to convey its feelings in the strongest terms. Last week it issued a trenchant response to the current ILT framework with the warning: "The success or failure of the institute is dependent on the production of an accreditation framework that has the support of the profession.

"The paper produced by the ILT does not form the basis of a consensus. It requires major revision ... before there can be any realistic hope of launching the institute successfully."

The AUT's objections are threefold: first, the requirements are said to have excluded a "very large proportion'' of the profession from ILT membership, namely academics with management responsibilities or those whose focus is research and scholarship.

Second, the complexity of the process of gathering evidence of competence is described as too prescriptive and failing to take account of the assessed probation period already completed by the vast majority of AUT members.

Third, the AUT is strongly opposed to the proposal that institute members be required to spend an average 40 hours annually on continuing professional development because it says there is neither the time nor the resources to do this properly."

At a meeting with the institute last week, Mr Cottrell got the answers he hoped for.

"It was very positive indeed,'' he said. "They have now acknowledged they must respond to the very negative feeling across the sector. They are in listening mode and they are determined to get a consensus. We, at the AUT, in return must retain our basic commitment to the institute. And I am feeling confident we can persuade people to do that."

A lot of academics have misunderstood the ILT, he added, perceiving it to be another arm of government or the Quality Assurance Agency.

"Somehow the ILT has got itself associated with the quality police but this really is a different kind of body, which is run by the profession itself. So far we have failed to get that message across. And that is the job we have to do now."

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