A profession of faith

June 26, 1998

The Institute of Learning and Teaching kicks off this autumn, writes Alison Utley.

The Institute of Learning and Teaching will begin to be fine-tuned next week Its mission is to set national standards for university lecturing for the first time Following months of deliberations and consultations the planning group will gather in London on Monday to thrash out some difficult ideological and practical issues before operations begin this autumn. For it is one thing to require new recruits to academia to prove they can teach. But it is quite another to convince the thousands of lecturers who have taught for years that they must provide evidence that they are doing it right.

Some are vociferous critics, who see the institute as an attack on their work. But others believe the kind of learned society model will bring a long overdue injection of professionalism into university teaching at a time of increasing "consumer" scrutiny.

Whether membership of the institute becomes compulsory or whether it will simply be desirable remains to be seen. But in effectively issuing a licence to practise similar to that required by the medical profession, there will need to be circumstances in which that licence will be refused or withdrawn. "These are hard issues that need resolving," said Brighton University vice-chancellor David Watson, who is presenting a report on the question to next week's meeting.

His working group is sorting out the practicalities of getting a very large accreditation scheme up and running in a short time.

Another group has been testing out a suggested accreditation framework at six very different universities across the old and new sectors because concerns have been raised by the vice-chancellors of some of the elite institutions that the institute was an attack on their academic freedom.

The framework works well with the exisitng varied staff development already offered by universities, said Gus Pennington, head of the working group.

A business plan, commissioned from consultants Coopers and Lybrand, will be presented to the meeting. This will address where the institute should be based, who will run it, and how it will be funded.

Meanwhile, Roger King, chair of the institute's planning group has been looking at how other countries are solving the issue of lecturer effectiveness and the need for wider public accountability.

In Australia, for instance, the West report pressed for the introduction of student vouchers as a funding mechanism. This is to promote "customer awareness" among staff.

Dutch polytechnics have had mandatory teaching qualifications for tenured staff for some time and universities, which have differing regimes, are working out a more coordinated approach.

In the United States, academics' membership of the American Association of Higher Education is voluntary.

"It seems increasingly likely that more countries will seriously consider national approaches to university learning and teaching development," Professor King said. "Whether this takes the form of direct governmental intervention, support for professional self-regulation or moves towards fuller blown student-based funding regimes is still open to conjecture."

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