Lip service to teaching is not enough, report says

Review calls for robust measures of contributions to students' learning, writes Rebecca Attwood

November 13, 2008

The university system is failing staff who want to specialise in teaching, and must develop "more robust" criteria for recruiting and promoting lecturers for their contribution to students' learning.

This assertion is among a list of conclusions in a report for the Government on the future of the student experience, by Paul Ramsden, head of the Higher Education Academy. The report reveals results of a survey by the HEA of more than 2,500 staff, which shows that academics believe teaching is under-rewarded.

"There is a real sense that formal recognition is given to teaching in name only and that promotion can be obtained on research achievement alone," the report says.

It says "many" academics believe that the leadership provided by deans and heads of department is "inimical to good teaching", and recommends that funding should be provided to train staff involved in promotions, and to ensure that lecturers have time to produce scholarship related to teaching.

The report also recommends:

- remodelling the undergraduate curriculum to offer "trans-disciplinary" programmes;

- developing published measures of universities' commitment to teaching and the student experience;

- creation of a national external examiner system;

- strengthening complaints procedures and sanctions against breaches of quality or standards.

Professor Ramsden's report is one of nine commissioned by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, published this week, which set out the challenges the sector faces over the next 15 years (see pages 8-9).

The report says that the reputation of teaching in the UK is among the best in the world, but the future is "more expensive and risky", with teaching costs rising faster than likely future increases in public funding.

The "intimacy of the pedagogical relationship" - which Professor Ramsden says is a "special quality" of English education - could be threatened by funding constraints.

Many students are "disappointed" by inadequate libraries and learning spaces, which need investment, but the report warns against over-simplistic arguments that students deserve better "value for money" in the form of more contact hours, as there is no evidence of a relationship between contact hours and learning outcomes.

The call for investment is backed by a report for Mr Denham by Universities UK, which says the UK's world status cannot be maintained while it is "funded at approximately one third of US levels".

Professor Ramsden recommends that the "sharp boundary" between financial support for full-time and part-time students be removed. This is supported by a report for Mr Denham from Christine King, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, which says that the inferior support for part-timers is "increasingly indefensible".

Professor Ramsden also says undergraduate students should be able to carry out research-based and "transdisciplinary" study, and traditional timetables and calendars should be reviewed. Curriculum reform should be coupled with "a fresh look at assessment" - most urgently, the system for classifying honours degrees, which "does not describe the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century".

There will need to be a more flexible workforce, and the disincentives to academics who want to work across different sectors must be removed, he says. On quality and standards, Professor Ramsden says there is a risk that public perceptions could be compromised by a greater emphasis on work-based learning.

"The external examiner system, despite its successes, requires review and development to produce a truly national system which, while retaining the benefits of peer review by academics, can guarantee comparability of standards of achievement in the future," he says.

He argues that the higher education sector "has not kept pace" with a more diverse student population, and students need better support and preparation for university.

But Professor Ramsden argues that there is "very limited" evidence that students see higher education purely as a means to an end, or are more insistent on high-quality teaching.

"Hard evidence that students in higher education are more passive and consumer-minded than they used to be is slim; but this dystopian picture ... has the incipient signs of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

OPPOSITION THINKING

Academics whose primary role is teaching should not have to "pretend" to conduct research in order to fit in, the shadow Universities Secretary has said.

David Willetts said he was concerned by data which show that a lot of research is being done by academics who are not on research contracts and not counted in the research assessment exercise.

He said: "That is very odd, and what is going wrong is that people are not valuing scholarship, which is fundamental to good teaching even if it is not novel research.

"Teaching is a fundamental function of universities; communicating ideas to the next generation is incredibly valuable.

"Universities should not be embarrassed about members of staff whose main function is teaching, and those staff shouldn't have to pretend to be doing research if what they are really doing is engaging in scholarship in order to teach."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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