High standards in a massive world

July 17, 1998

SOME words escape me. Words such as "standards" and "innovation". Not because their definition is elusive, or their meaning largely unclear. But because they become associated with a metaphysical warmth. More of them means better. Yesterday tends to be bad, and tomorrow good.

There is a danger that we may be too hasty if we define standards of learning and teaching in higher education as a major problem (or, if we regard innovation as the only solution). Undoubtedly there is room for improvement, but no one has yet proved in a rigorous manner that the levels of teaching in universities and colleges are seriously deficient. Indeed we seek to compete internationally on grounds that potentially they are world class.

A better approach is to recognise that the emergence of massification has increased the challenges and burdens for all academics and related staff, and that these are likely to become more extensive. As student-staff ratios continue to rise, and as student backgrounds and capabilities become more diverse, a major task faces higher education in maintaining and transposing existing high levels of teaching quality and in disseminating new methods of learning. Without an adequate response, standards could fall.

The perception should not be one of responding to poor standards or recalcitrant staff. Although examples of the latter exist, an overly negative response to the need for both initial and continuing development for higher education practitioners is unlikely to succeed.

A strategy that not only promotes better teaching but highlights some current excellence would be especially appropriate. This should involve recognition of individuals, teams and techniques that are particularly effective. The government's intention to create a national scheme of awards for educators, including possibly for higher education, strikes a positive note and can be viewed as giving something back to the educational community.

Such schemes should help raise the status of learning and teaching, particularly if the rewards go to the practitioners and not the institutions. The Queen's Anniversary Prizes, for example, are allocated to universities and colleges, rather than staff, and the recent demise of the Partnership Trust Awards for innovative programmes and course teams has left a gap.

Recognition with the wider public, as well as internally to the sector, should be a prerequisite. This entails a media-friendly approach, including the tabloids. Perhaps a "Prof-of-the-Year" headline would not be so bad.

Such an approach helps to shift the criteria for achievement of professional registration (with the Institute for Learning and Teaching, for example) from being process-based (for example by taking a programme of academic study), to being primarily evidence-based (by demonstrating achievement of outcomes). This should not preclude the use of many established (and proposed) certificate, diploma and master's level programmes for staff development and routes to ILT registration. But the movement is likely to be towards multiple routes to membership, while maintaining portability, reliability and consistency.

Such developments will be particularly helpful to established staff. Gradually one can see registration becoming based on evidence of capability in practice and of a reflective-practitioner approach, rather than on achievements of a specified level of academic study.

Someone once said that higher education teaching was more of a craft than a profession. The comparison was not intended to be particularly favourable, although the notion of a craft seems to me to be quite positive. However, the statement was intended to convey a distinction between technique and understanding. Being able to do something may be useful, but not especially challenging intellectually, or based upon a comprehension of why a method works.

Any national approach to professional development for staff in universities and colleges must rest upon a good theoretical and conceptual basis. It cannot simply provide a hurdle to be wearily jumped, but must stimulate and excite, like the best research.

Roger King is vice-chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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