Alison Wolf

June 4, 2004

A system of professional standards for academics will be meaningless and will discriminate against contract researchers

Why do people keep hammering away at ideas and answers that are demonstrably wrong?

An eminent psychologist once described to me how often this happened in his experiments. People were asked to identify common patterns underlying different combinations of shapes and colour. They got feedback on whether they were right or wrong, after which they could try again. The curious thing was how often people re-entered their original solution. And the more eminent the subjects, the longer they kept bashing away. They had, my colleague suggested, become far too unused to being wrong.

Our government is like this with occupational standards. In spite of repeated failures, it keeps coming back with the same idea. In Whitehall, people seem genuinely to believe that written documents that list detailed "standards" of behaviour are enough to deliver that behaviour in practice.

This failed to happen with managers and plumbers: why should university teachers be any different?

Universities UK is consulting on "a framework of professional teaching standards" to be written by the Higher Education Academy. The idea originates in a white paper recommendation that all new teaching staff obtain a qualification based on "teaching standards", and I am quite sure that consultation will soon become implementation. The consequences are predictable: bureaucracy and expense, but also serious infringements of equal opportunity.

The idea of specifying occupational or professional standards is seductive because, of course, we are all in favour of "standards". We like them high, or even gold, and we like them consistent, whether we are talking about A-level grades, the surgeons who operate on us or the people who check our tax returns. And who could quarrel with high teaching standards in our universities?

Moreover, clearly expressed statements about what people should achieve in their professional careers can be a crucial part of a good training and accreditation system. UUK's consultation document refers to schoolteaching, law and medicine, professions that have rightly thought hard about what trainees should achieve before qualification, and about how such "standards" should form the backbone of professional training.

But - and this is critical - all these professions also have long apprenticeship-style training programmes. Standards are meaningful only when they are understood and used by people who are involved in practical training and have close contact with the trainee. Otherwise they become meaningless. Some years ago I worked with trainee health visitors, most of whom worked largely on their own, even during training. In this situation, many of their standards - those to do with nursing in schools, for example - became something to be ticked off as soon as, and because, you had managed to secure a school placement. Achieving the long list of high-sounding outcomes actually meant: "Yes, I have had some school experience."

There is no chance that universities, of any type, will start funding long apprenticeships of the type that barristers, physicians or schoolteachers undertake. Any "standards-based" qualifications they adopt will be about experiences undergone, not about standards at all. They will be about having done so many hours teaching, about experiences with examining, or developing teaching materials. In other words, they will add nothing substantial to what is already on someone's CV.

Moreover, while the consultation makes the ritual obeisance to "avoiding disproportionate administrative burdens", it also wants "information in an accessible form - linked to the agreed national framework". How one is going to have that without tick boxes and portfolios that "demonstrate" attainment is beyond me. University teaching is not like medicine, or even legal work: no one is with you for large periods of time and no one can afford to be in future either.

The big losers in all this will be contract researchers. I was one for years, the typical female, juggling career and family, but I was fortunate.

My then-employer, the Institute of Education, offered some funded career posts for researchers: and one benefit, for me, was a return to full-course teaching. I am grateful and aware that this was unusual, a product of individual commitment and relative prosperity. Few contract researchers can teach on more than an occasional basis. If teaching qualifications become part of the audit repertoire, they will also become, increasingly, a prerequisite for permanent and senior appointments. It will be far simpler to shortlist only those who already have the stamp of approval than to process and pay for accrediting yet another member of staff. I dare say it may stand up in court but, in my book, this is a recipe for discrimination.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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