Finding the right way to recognise teaching excellence has become something of an obsession in recent years, with the debate being reignited in the UK as the government presses ahead with plans for subject-level ratings in the teaching excellence framework, and Australia exploring how to allocate university funding according to student performance.
However, while policymakers have been discussing the flaws and advantages of trying to identify good teaching using student metrics – incorporating data on issues such as retention, satisfaction and graduate salaries – many universities have been quietly advancing an agenda that many experts believe will do much more to improve teaching than any flashy sounding information tool: the redesign of academic career frameworks to recognise and reward a commitment to good teaching.
At several leading universities in the UK, US, Australia and continental Europe, career structures have been redrawn in recent years to more explicitly promote those who focus on teaching, with many also providing grants and sabbaticals to staff keen to explore the development of new ideas in learning, similar to those on offer to more research-oriented academics. In addition, many institutions have attempted to attach greater importance to education when considering promotion applications from traditional teaching and research academics.
Several universities that have reformed their career structures have used a blueprint created by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, titled the Career Framework for University Teaching.
The organisation, founded in 1976, began to develop the advisory structure in November 2013 after a survey of more than 600 academics and university managers found that three-quarters did not think that lecturing skills were important in promotion decisions.
From early 2016, universities throughout the world have used the framework to reform their reward and recognition processes, according to an evaluation of 15 top-ranked institutions that subscribed to it, published last month. Other universities are now being encouraged to incorporate the framework into their promotion criteria.
Jonathan Seville, chair of the RAE’s education and skills committee and professor of formulation engineering at the University of Birmingham, believed that the framework would be particularly useful for those staff who aspire to outstanding teaching, but who also have to balance the demands of research and administration.
“Universities are pretty good at having [basic] thresholds on teaching that lecturers should meet and they are starting to develop some good ideas for rewarding really outstanding practice, but there is precious little for those somewhere in the middle,” said Professor Seville, who is academic director of Birmingham’s Collaborative Teaching Laboratory. “This has come from the Royal Academy of Engineering but it is entirely generic and applicable to all subjects,” he added.
Many institutions have found the RAE’s advice on what evidence can be submitted to show good teaching particularly valuable, said Professor Seville. Staff are invited to submit a range of evidence, from self-assessment of a teaching approach and measures of student learning, to pass rates, unsolicited student feedback and employer comments, and recognition from peers of a lecturer’s impact.
“For many universities, the sources of evidence that can be used to show good teaching are often quite restricted,” said Professor Seville, who added that some institutions “went overboard on student assessments of teaching quality”.
“While they aren’t irrelevant [to promotion assessments], they should be only part of what is considered,” he said.
The framework divides academics’ teaching achievement into four levels: at the bottom, an “effective” teacher; next, a “skilled and collegial” teacher; then, either an “institutional leader in teaching and learning” or a “scholarly” teacher; and at the top, a “national/global leader in teaching and learning”.
One institution that piloted the use of the RAE’s new framework to reassess its career structure was the National University of Singapore, which wanted to address concerns over a new “educator track” for advancement introduced in 2015. According to the RAE’s report, many academics had criticised the “over-reliance on student ratings, widely perceived as ‘fake-able’”, while others worried about the “limited range of evidence sources available to evaluate teaching achievement”.
Using the career framework, the NUS has now identified more “valid and reliable sources of evidence to demonstrate candidates’ teaching achievements” that are laid out in a teaching portfolio.
Another institution to use the framework is the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, which launched a new education-focused academic career pathway in mid-2017. Less than a year later, 200 academics have been accepted on to the route, which will allow them to receive grants and sabbaticals to aid their teaching, as well as support to establish events, educational retreats and small-group workshops at the university.
Encouraging this type of educational impact outside academics’ own classrooms is a key aim of the framework, explains Professor Seville.
“Some good teachers will want to show the wider impact of their educational work by publishing in education journals, but they could also do this by developing something within their own institution,” he said, adding that educational influence is “not all about papers in education journals”.
“Some very effective educators can do this, but if you want a research career as well, then it is very difficult,” he said.
The framework has also been used at UCL to inform its new career structure, launched in October 2017, while other participants in the pilot included the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. In addition, it was also used by the Netherlands’ new Comenius Grant Scheme, launched in 2018, which has seen 74 teaching fellowships worth up to €250,000 (£219,000) each distributed in its first year.
“This is not earth-shattering new advice,” admitted Professor Seville, who says that it complemented much of the guidance contained in the UK Professional Standards Framework run by the Higher Education Academy (now part of Advance HE), which has been embedded into many university career track schemes. “However, we have brought together a lot of good practice into one place and presented it in a way people can use.”
While politicians in Westminster aim to drive up teaching quality by delivering the subject-level phase of the TEF, the RAE’s more old-fashioned approach to incentivising good teaching may actually pay greater dividends, the organisation believes.
In its response to a recent TEF consultation, the RAE notes that “any absolute measurement of teaching quality has proved at best problematic (and at worst, conceptually impossible)”, while some of the proposed metrics were “wholly inconsistent with the claim that subject-level TEF is a measure of teaching excellence”. Difficulties with measurements may “actively mislead” some students about course quality, it adds.
“There are a lot of concerns about using graduate outcomes as a proxy for teaching quality,” said Professor Seville, who added that he hoped the TEF would be “just one of many efforts to improve teaching”.
Engineering an improvement: the Career Framework for University Teaching
Level 1: effective teacher
“Takes a conscientious and reflective approach, creating positive conditions for student learning and demonstrating effective teaching delivery that develops over time. Their primary sphere of impact is the students they teach and tutor.”
Level 2: skilled and collegial teacher
“Takes an evidence-informed approach to their development as a teacher and provides mentorship to their peers to promote a collegial and collaborative educational environment across their school or discipline. Their sphere of impact encompasses their academic colleagues (as well as students).”
Level 3a: institutional leader in teaching and learning
“Makes a significant contribution to enhancing the environment for inclusion and excellence in teaching and learning within and beyond their institution. Their sphere of impact encompasses the educational environment at their school/university (as well as their impact on academic peers and students).”
Level 3b: scholarly teacher
“Makes a significant contribution to pedagogical knowledge by engaging with and contributing to scholarly research which, in turn, influences educational practice within and beyond their institution. Their sphere of impact encompasses ‘educational knowledge’, at their institution and within the community in their pedagogical fields of interest (as well as academic peers and students).”
Level 4: national/global leader in teaching and learning
“Makes exceptional contributions to teaching and learning in higher education through national and global influence and leadership in educational practice and/or in pedagogical research. Their sphere of impact encompasses the national/global education community.”