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)

Eleven years ago the University Grants Committee declared that it knew how to assess research quality but not how to assess teaching quality. It would therefore reward the former but rely on the professionalism of universities for the latter. My criticism at the time that this would lead to a deterioration of teaching quality, even if the UGC were unable to recognise it, has since come to pass, but fortunately the funding council now believes that it can both recognise teaching quality and reward it.

Furthermore, the HEFCE understands that both recognition and reward must be at the three levels of institution, department and individual. However the HEFCE, the Department for Education and Employment and others in a position of power have a long record of making changes which led to unintended and often deleterious consequences. It is therefore important to tackle the problem of recognition and reward of teaching excellence at a somewhat deeper level than would appear to have been done by HEFCE so far.

There are two very different approaches to teaching, corresponding respectively to the dominant teacher-centred and the emerging learner-centred modes of learning. They lead to very different forms of teaching excellence: l traditional teaching excellence, which meets the teacher-centred learning objectives of students excellently through traditional and sometimes innovative methods; l innovative teaching excellence, which meets innovative, student- centred learning objectives of students excellently, usually through innovative methods.

The first is the more common and is almost certainly the excellence recognised in the main by teaching quality assessments. Such excellence is a craft as opposed to a professional excellence, based almost entirely on experience handed down through generations of teachers. (This is so even when innovative methods such as IT are used, since they are used within a pedagogically traditional frame.) It is to the credit of HEFCE that it now suggests that such excellence, which is clearly at programme or departmental level, should be based on a bidding process and not on the TQA assessments.

As learning objectives for a future learning society move towards student-centred learning, and learning methods increasingly use information technology, rewarding traditional excellence may rapidly lead to "doing the wrong thing righter", rather than "doing the right thing". On the other hand, real innovations need refining over time, and so may at first do the "right thing wronger", before succeeding in doing it "righter". It is therefore necessary to provide finance for encouraging innovations, largely at the level of individuals and small groups, quite separate from the rewards for teaching excellence in innovative programmes,where rewards will again be at programme or department level.

Innovative excellence requires a radical change of academic culture at all levels of the academic hierarchy, as was recognised in the recent THES report on the 50th Biannual Conference of European Rectors: "Universities ... will have to face the prospect of employing fewer academics in traditional lecturing roles as part of a move towards more student-centred learning and increasing use of information technology". Such radical change requires deliberate change strategies. Their most striking feature is that successful change is never imposed top down; instead it is facilitated from above but engendered from below, ie bottom up. Furthermore, the most important vehicle for such change is academic staff and continuing professional development at all levels from probationer to vice-chancellor, a vehicle which incidentally will change university teaching from a craft to a profession. It is at this point that flaws in the HEFCE proposals become apparent. With one exception, ie the proposed Economic and Social Research Council scheme, they are demonstrably top down, since HEFCE maintains control, and this is unfortunately so even for such otherwise admirable schemes as the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. Getting CVCP agreement to its proposals may be of little help, since although CVCP is bottom up to HEFCE, it is top down to the rest of academia. Real change, engendered at first bottom up by enthusiasts and then spread to larger and larger numbers via recognised change strategies will happen only if the CVCP accepts that its members must have a facilitative role in the creation of change - through the provision and encouragement of staff development and through genuine rewards for innovative excellence, eg a recognised promotion route which is separate from but equal to the promotion route through research excellence. It is at this point that institutional excellence, ie the facilitative excellence which allows innovation to grow and spread, should enter the picture.

Summing up, there should be rewards for teaching excellence at three levels:

* at the level of programme or department both traditional and innovative excellence should be rewarded, as HEFCE suggests, through funding additional student places

* at the institutional level, facilitative excellence should be recognised financially on the basis of future plans, well-founded on current innovative practice

* at the individual and small group level, there should be research and development funds: for research from ESRC (well done HEFCE for providing the funds) and for development from the Institute for Teaching and Learning (ILT will be better constituted for that task than HEFCE, because it will be owned by the profession, although HEFCE must of course provide the funds here too). None of these measures will "redress the balance of prestige between teaching and research", and indeed no measure can do that for the system as a whole.

They may however reduce the imbalance in the system and for individual academics they may actually redress it. A well thought out approach, as indicated here, may even avoid unintended and deleterious consequences.

Lewis Elton is professor of higher education, University College London

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