Excellence in teaching must have prizes

June 26, 1998

A Pounds 30 million fund is to be created to encourage better teaching in universities, says Bahram Bekhradnia (below). But the scheme is unlikely to generate real change, says Lewis Elton (far right)

There is widespread recognition that we must find ways to raise the status of teaching in higher education. Some time ago the Higher Education Funding Council for England described the need to redress the balance of prestige between teaching and research. There has been much progress in the last year. Within the funding council we have adopted a strategy, overseen by a learning and teaching committee, which is concerned with stimulating both central initiatives and local activity.

We have also established a pedagogic research fund intended to ensure better understanding of the processes of learning and teaching which, among other things, will ensure better focused initiatives.

The Dearing report also contained a number of recommendations which bear on this, the most significant being the creation of an Institute for Learning and Teaching. This body, which will recognise the professionalism of academic staff by accrediting them to teach in higher education, could have an enormously important role to play in raising the profile and status of teaching. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals-led committee which is charged with setting up the institute is making impressively rapid progress towards this.

One measure we are considering is the creation of a direct link between teaching excellence and funding. In the past there has been no such link beyond the drastic one of withdrawing funds from provision judged unsatisfactory in the quality assessment process.

James Wright argued (THES, April 17) that it was illogical to provide a reward which would enable those already excellent to become better at the expense of those deemed to be less good. He is right that there is a distinction between our policies for teaching and for research. For research we have a policy of selectivity and an explicit aim to provide funds differentially on the basis of research excellence.

He is also right that it would be wrong to reward the good if it means removing funds from the less good. But it was never our intention to do this. Any reward for excellence should be additional to the formula funds for teaching, and should come from the discretionary funds at our disposal.

We tested the water at the HEFCE annual conference in April, attended by most of the vice-chancellors and principals. The clear message there was that there are good reasons for a link between funding and teaching excellence, as a counterbalance to the very strong and direct link between funding and research quality.

On the other hand there was a strong feeling too that the reward should not be provided formulaically, based on the results of the quality assessment process. Some questioned whether the quality assessment results were sufficiently robust to provide a basis on which to allocate funding.

However, the main concern was that, at a time when the Quality Assurance Agency was consulting about a new system, it would be wrong to base reward for teaching on a process which was likely to be superseded. And it would be intolerable if the new quality assessment process were primarily designed to provide a basis for the funding council to allocate funds. Nor would there be any point in implementing a system based on the present process if it could only run for two or three years.

The strong view from the HEFCE conference was that rewards should be provided for teaching excellence, but provided through bidding processes.

It is likely that the council will put aside a significant sum of money - perhaps 1 per cent or more (Pounds 30 million) of the total grant for teaching - to create a fund which could be used to support initiatives aimed at providing such rewards. This fund would be flexible, might grow over time and would be intended both to reward those already demonstrating excellence and to encourage others to improve their practice.

At present, we are considering three approaches - not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing. First, at the level of the institution, we will continue to allocate additional-funded student numbers using teaching quality as one of the main criteria. This will have the additional advantage of enabling more students to enrol on high quality courses. It will be up to the institution itself to make the claim for teaching quality, using whatever evidence, including quality assessment scores, which it feels will be persuasive.

At the level of the department or subject, we will continue to recognise high quality through schemes such as the fund for the development of teaching and learning, to develop improvements in teaching practice and to ensure that these are disseminated. It is becoming increasingly clear that dissemination is best achieved through networks of subject peers - since it is to such colleagues that academics most naturally relate on academic questions. We will take this into account as we develop this strand of our thinking.

That leaves the level of the individual academic. The vice-chancellors and principals were clear that bidding systems were more likely than others to prove satisfactory in rewarding institutions and departments. Might this be the case for individuals as well? Should we consider a fund against which academics could bid - or against which institutions could bid on behalf of their staff - which would recognise outstanding achievements in teaching, or enable individuals to enhance and develop learning and teaching?

As with grants for research, such awards could provide time for staff to pursue any number of activities - to take sabbaticals or to develop teaching materials or text books, for example. They would certainly carry great prestige, and would have the desired effect of raising the profile of teaching.

We need to develop our thinking further, and we will consult widely on our proposals over the summer. We will need to be sufficiently flexible in what we do to take account of the activities of the Institute of Learning and Teaching when it is up and running although it is unlikely that the institute will duplicate the sort of initiative funding that we are considering.

One thing is clear: although we may not provide direct and formulaic rewards for teaching excellence, the need remains to recognise and reward excellent teaching. We plan to do this. The question is, how?

Bahram Bekhradnia is director of policy, HEFCE

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