Birth pangs of a body for lecturers

March 20, 1998

ONE OF the more welcome recommendations of the Dearing committee was the proposal that an Institute for Learning and Teaching be established. Dearing envisaged that the institute would be instrumental in raising the standing and effectiveness of teaching and learning and would help re-align the imbalance of rewards between those functions and research.

Since publication, interested parties have formed a formal planning group to consider how to progress. The institute will probably be officially inaugurated this autumn with an agreed corporate plan, physical location, a director and a small team of staff.

Modelled on the lines of a professional body or learned society, it will have to move rapidly to become an organisation that is owned by its predominantly individual membership. Funding must reflect this locus.

The government welcomed the idea of such an institute and looked for early progress. What are the main issues to be resolved if the higher education community is to support the ILT and to see it as genuinely "adding value"?

The ILT must agree its priorities. The accreditation of programmes leading to ILT recognition and membership for staff is likely to figure large in the initial stages. This is partly because the excellent work of the accreditation group, chaired by Clive Booth, has paved the way for sensitive and determined actions by the institute for the rest of this year. Work on identifying membership and fellowship of the ILT will need to be quick, not least to ensure that a pool of respected and expert people is available to assist in validation processes leading initially to the part one and two stages of associate membership.

Agreement on vocabulary is also relevant. Should we refer to "initial and continuing professional development", for example, rather than Dearing's use of the term "teacher training"?

A crucial requirement will be that the institute understands its role with others, including universities and colleges, which are not looking for another quango. Confidence and a genuine support for staff will be important.

But other bodies and agencies need to feel that their particular functions are recognised, particularly the funding councils. These have key legitimate functions in helping raise the strategic profile of learning and teaching. Perhaps in time some of the foci of the funders will be passed over to the ILT, but not yet. In the meantime it would be absurd if the ILT's creation led to the wasteful re-invention of wheels and turf wars.

It will be interesting to hear the views of the sector in an upcoming consultative exercise on the character of the institute. A real professional body ought in time (five years?) to be funded primarily from individual membership subscriptions and the sale of services. Such arrangements would also help to generate a sense of sector ownership and an independence that will be necessary if the new venture is to succeed.

But should this rule out institutional subscriptions too? There is an argument that institutions may also wish to have the chance to express a more corporate support for activities that are obviously beneficial to their own plans. But further mandatory raids on declining funds in colleges and universities to help pay for the ILT will not curry favour.

Perhaps the best initial characteristics of the ILT will be as a facilitator, standards seller, market-maker and enhancer. Such aims would help reduce the risk of a larger officialdom emerging. Moreover, it should ensure that wider public accountability and professional ownership are sensibly aligned.

Roger King is the chairman of the planning group for the Institute of Learning and Teaching, and vice-chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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