Attempts to launch a rival to the Institute for Learning and Teaching are a mistake, argues Brian Smith.
The Association of University Teachers could be taking a huge risk by pressing ahead with plans for a new higher education teaching accreditation scheme. If it is a success, it will split the academic community. If it fails, not only will the union lose credibility, but the development of accreditation in higher education could be set back by many years.
The AUT's desire to climb on the accreditation bandwagon is not new. It has been campaigning for a national system of professional accreditation since 1996 and contributed to the report that led to the establishment of the Institute for Learning and Teaching. But its executive now seems to believe that it may have missed an opportunity by limiting its subsequent involvement in accreditation.
Playing a central role in the professional development and accreditation of its members enhances an organisation's status. It also improves its bargaining power when it comes to negotiating pay and service.
A proposal to be put to the AUT council in May calls for the union to take action to create a national system of professional accreditation to rival the ILT model, for launch in October 2002. Critics believe that introducing a rival scheme at this juncture can only be confusing and divisive. It would have to offer significant advantages in order to poach members from the ILT.
Most academics engaged in educational development are members or prospective members of the ILT. Teaching in higher education is yet to acquire the status of research, particularly in the older universities. Introducing an alternative system will signal to the outside world that the profession is split, which may invite greater external interference.
Details of the scheme are undecided, but the declared intention is to devise a model that is acceptable to AUT members, credible to the outside world and "owned" by the union. It claims application procedures will be less bureaucratic than those operated by the ILT, but critics fear that the scheme will be lightweight and professionally unconvincing.
The AUT proposal expresses a concern not to "repeat the mistakes of the ILT" - the fundamental one being "failing to advance a compelling case for accreditation to the profession before inviting staff to sign up". The AUT acknowledges that its alternative will have to provide answers to the same range of questions about value and practical benefits that it accuses the ILT of having dealt with so unconvincingly.
The proposal has merit in its emphasis on linking accreditation with probation, and in giving priority to the needs of new entrants to the profession. It is also correct in pointing out that accreditation has resource implications for staff development and training opportunities. But this is recognised by the ILT and nothing in the proposed changes appears to justify the launch of a new scheme.
I believe the AUT should consider emulating the Staff and Educational Development Association by working to improve existing provision. Prior to the Dearing report, Seda was the major player in teaching accreditation. When the ILT was established, Seda lent its support and as a result has been strengthened as an organisation and been able to channel resources into other areas.
The AUT has many years of experience as a union and a fine record of defending its members' rights. It will discover that improved professional status will follow from cooperation and collaboration, not confrontation. Teaching can ill afford to be tarnished by internal rivalries. A united front on accreditation is in the best interests of AUT members and the profession as a whole.
Brian Smith is emeritus reader at Sussex University, a member of the Seda executive, on the ILT accreditor panel and a former member of the AUT.