Have a bit of faith in the soul of learning

November 5, 2004

How can anyone feel 'agnostic' about research-led teaching, asks Frank Furedi.

Although higher education managers often pay lip service to research-led teaching, it is evident that they praise it in order to bury it. The principal purpose of the drive to professionalise lecturing is to transform teaching into a skill that can be deployed in its own right. This imperative towards the professionalisation of lecturing contains the assumption that good teaching is the outcome of the acquisition of generic skills. The relationship of the professionalisation of lecturing to scholarship and research is, at best, tangential. The devaluation of research-led teaching is not the accidental by-product of the McDonaldisation of higher education. It is fundamental to the pedagogic ethos advanced in the 1997 Dearing report and institutionalised through one of its more philistine offspring, the Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

And there is worse to come. Last year's White Paper The Future of Higher Education promises to carry forward the crusade to turn academics into trained teachers. This crusade is underpinned by the belief that the system can work only if the kind of control mechanism associated with the national curriculum is imposed on universities. Since a university-based national curriculum is not practicable, the audit freaks have opted to maximise control through the policing of teaching through lecture training.

Some colleagues hope that the displacement by the Higher Education Academy of the highly prescriptive ILTHE may represent a slowing of the Dearing revolution. Don't hold your breath. Yes, this so-called academy is happy to shift the focus from generic to subject-based teaching through its subject network. But the shift merely alters the forms through which the transformation of research-led into skills-based teaching proceeds. In any case, subject-based teaching skills have nothing to do with research-led teaching. No one pretends that subject-based teaching skills, which are provided for primary and secondary school teachers, have anything to do with research or scholarship. So, I wasn't surprised to read in a broadsheet that Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the academy, is "agnostic" about the proposition that university teaching must be research led.

In defence of his agnosticism, Ramsden cites his experience as a student at Rutherford College of Technology, where lecturers did not do research. One of his teachers, a sociologist, proved to be inspiring. But inspiration is not a substitute for research-led teaching.

So what's so special about research-led teaching? The pursuit of research takes academics into territory where they have to rethink, rework, explore and test fundamental concepts of their discipline. Through such work, scholars play a role in the development of their discipline and gain insights into the constitution of the problems that confront their peers.

When they teach, they do not merely transmit knowledge but involve students in a common project. And when they teach, they don't simply communicate ideas read in books but also insights gained through the experience of pursuing research.

From this standpoint, teaching is not merely an add-on activity. One reason why most scholars I know love teaching is because it provides them with the opportunity to work through ideas that are in the stage of evolution. It is only when you succeed in communicating your "discoveries" to students that you can be sure that your work matters. For students, this type of teaching is an invitation to participate in a common journey of discovery. When a leading figure in higher education states that he is agnostic about the importance of this type of teaching, I worry.

Anyone interested in joining me in starting a campaign for research-led, or preferably scholarship-led, university education?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, Kent University.

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