Academics should not lead unexamined lives

July 30, 2004

Scholars must begin to scrutinise their practices and allow research to inform teaching, says Stephen Rowland.

Higher education is the only major profession that is largely uninformed by the research and postgraduate teaching of academic departments. It is time for higher education to lead its own development by giving serious thought to its practices and policies rather than simply responding to external pressures.

The Higher Education Academy, which aims to "raise the status of teaching", is appointing a director of research. This may be a sign that higher education is beginning to take itself seriously. The Higher Education Act will put more pressure on universities to ensure that fee-paying students get value for money and that their work is open to public scrutiny.

Some universities have tried to improve their practices by adding academic elements to staff training or development units. This has usually led to a difficult marriage between academic and service roles. Staff developers, who are not academics and have little experience of research in higher education, are inevitably viewed by academics as lacking credibility on research and teaching issues.

Other universities have tried to engage education departments. But the study of higher education has normally been marginalised in departments that have traditionally studied all sectors of education except their own.

Furthermore, academics are naturally reluctant to be viewed as researchers and developers of their colleagues. As the head of an education department at a prestigious university put it: "Higher education is a hot potato. We wouldn't want to be seen as telling our colleagues how to do their work."

Some institutions have set up central service units devoted to enhancing learning and teaching. Where they deliver award-bearing courses - often courses in learning and teaching for new lecturers - this leads to complex organisational arrangements, with academic courses being accountable through a faculty while service activities are directed centrally.

Because of such difficulties, higher education research draws little from the wider field of education, with its deeper roots in the social sciences.

This can be seen by the relative lack of contact between the two leading UK research associations in education and higher education: the British Educational Research Association and the Society for Research in Higher Education.

Given the uncertain start of higher education as a field of study, there is a severe under-supply of qualified academic staff. Consequently, higher education policy is largely uninformed by research.

The dangers of this are becoming apparent. Innovation in teaching tends to be dominated by quick-fix approaches to applying new technologies. Models of the curriculum based on ill-conceived notions of skills and outcomes are stifling the natural curiosity of students and undermining serious engagement with the field of knowledge. The evaluation of teaching is based largely on limited "customer-satisfaction" models inappropriately drawn from other service contexts. Even the PhD is coming to be valued primarily in terms of the development of skills for employment rather than as a contribution to knowledge. Innovation thus comes to be led by passing vogue rather than careful and critical reflection.

Despite these problems, more funding is becoming available for teaching and research into the field. This presents an opportunity for universities to make a vital contribution - if they will subject their work to scrutiny.

Universities should create spaces for serious critical reflection on higher education policy and practice. Such spaces would involve research and teaching in higher education. They would look outward as well as inward, making links with the wider world that higher education serves, as well as building the community of scholars.

Their contribution to knowledge would be open to the same scrutiny as that of any other disciplinary or professional fields. They would allow universities to develop policy and practice rather than merely respond to the latest regimes of politicians. They would, in effect, constitute higher education as a field of study. In this way, universities could meet the needs of the Higher Education Act for better performance, inform policy-makers and increase the control institutions have over their future.

The obvious way to achieve this would be to create academic departments devoted to the study of higher education. But could university managers tolerate the open and critical study of the institutions they manage?

Stephen Rowland is professor of higher education at University College London.

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