Audit models 'kill teaching'

April 23, 2004

University teaching reforms risk destroying the learning experience for students by forcing academics to adhere to a rigid and uniform lecturing style, according to a leading national teaching fellow.

Ben Knights, a professor of English and cultural studies at Teesside University, will speak out against the push towards new "generic" university teaching that is fast dominating the sector. In a lecture at his university in a fortnight, he will criticise "process-driven" attempts to improve standards of teaching in universities.

Professor Knights told The Times Higher : "We really have to go back to talking about content. If you take subject content out of the equation, which is what the new generic approach does, then the audit model of teaching penetrates ever deeper and we lose sight of the fact that teaching is a relationship between teacher and learner.

"That is disappearing as the state continues to prescribe to teachers how to do their job and students get short-changed."

The comments follow the inaugural professorial lecture by Sally Brown, director of membership at the Institute for Learning and Teaching, this week. She defined excellence in university teaching as: passion for the subject being taught; a commitment to students' learning; a commitment to sharing good practice and a commitment to one's own lifelong learning.

But many modern teaching trends threaten to deskill and demotivate university staff, according to Professor Knights. He is particularly concerned about the shift away from academic disciplines and expert knowledge in favour of generic teaching.

While supporting the move towards training of all university lecturers, Professor Knights will warn in his lecture that professional training courses are too general. "You are lucky if you get a single afternoon session on teaching in your own discipline," he said.

While acknowledging that standards of lecturing have improved in recent years, Professor Knights, who is on secondment to the Learning, Teaching and Support Network English Subject Centre in London, said university teaching was becoming too standardised.

"You are very unlikely to have a very bad experience of teaching in a university today, but at the same time the effect of auditing, checking and documenting everything bears down on the possibility of improvising and the focus becomes on the customer contract rather than human contact. We need to go back to what teachers actually do and say."

The trend towards standardised generic teaching began a decade ago when transferable skills gained popularity in higher education, Professor Knights said.

"There may have been good reasons for it back then, but the pendulum has swung too far, and much of the expert knowledge teachers possess is getting lost in the process.

"If we are going to resolve the crisis in morale among university teachers, first we need to acknowledge that expertise. Teaching, in the end, is about real people."

But Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education in London, said that while some of the post- 1992 universities had focused increasingly on generic teaching skills, the majority of university lecturing was still firmly based in the disciplines.

He said: "I share the concern that there is a great danger in regarding teaching as an activity completely separate from the rest of academic life but I don't believe there is much evidence of this on a large scale.

"There are a few cases where universities have produced complicated and formidable tables of generic skills to be acquired, but these are the exception in my view."

Professor Knights' free lecture is on May 5, 6.30pm to 8pm at Teesside University. Contact

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