LSE puts £2m in teaching to grant parity with research

School responds to criticism with cash for extra staff and to cut class sizes, says Rebecca Attwood

July 17, 2008

The London School of Economics is to reduce class sizes and increase contact time between staff and students as part of a drive to give its teaching equal status to research.

The school will plough an extra £2 million a year into teaching, appointing 25 new lecturers and offering more explicit recognition and reward for staff who can demonstrate excellent teaching.

The move comes amid mounting criticism from fee-paying students at research-led universities that their teaching needs have been neglected in the drive for research ratings, and it coincides with similar moves at the University of Manchester.

In February, Alan Gilbert, Manchester's vice-chancellor, criticised other members of the 20-strong elite Russell Group of research-led universities for neglecting teaching.

At the LSE, a task force was set up last year in response to concerns from students about teaching quality, disappointing scores in teaching surveys and a perception among staff that only research was valued. Forty of its proposals have been accepted by LSE's academic board.

Janet Hartley, pro-director for teaching and learning, who led the task force, said: "It wasn't that there was a crisis in teaching, but we weren't happy with some of the reports we'd had. I think it is as much about reputation and brand as anything - if we are projecting ourselves as a first-rate research institution, then parity has to be there with teaching as well."

A report by the task force says the LSE's scores on teaching quality in internal and national surveys had been "below the level to which we would aspire" for a number of years.

Some students had queried the extent to which they were getting "value for money" and felt they were not getting enough personal attention and there was a perception among many academic staff "that only research is valued and encouraged at departmental and school level". The extent to which graduate teaching assistants were used was also being questioned.

After consultation with staff and students, the task force recommended that £1.5 million a year should be spent on new lecturers, to reduce class sizes. Undergraduate classes already have a maximum size of 15 and the new strategy will see masters classes brought in line.

The task force report describes graduate teaching assistants - mostly PhD students - as "an integral part" of undergraduate teaching and says some are "exceptionally gifted teachers". But it was concerned about the amount of teaching done by them in some departments at masters level, and said they should normally be used only to supplement "core" teaching for masters students.

Senior staff will observe teaching performance when academics apply for promotion, more information on teaching from surveys will be made available to department heads and promotion committees, and department heads will be encouraged to put forward staff for pay rises as a reward for good teaching.

Professor Hartley said: "There was a feeling in the academic community that the balance had slipped. No one's suggesting we should diminish our role as a research institution, but there should be some reward and some ability for staff who are good at teaching to be able to carry it through and be rewarded."

Contact between academics and their students outside formal teaching will be "redefined" to enable tutors to focus on academic advice and feedback, and students will be given a better understanding of the non-academic support available.

A teaching committee will examine new ideas and good practice on teaching, assessment and feedback, and financial support will be provided for projects and innovations in teaching.

Professor Hartley said the task force was inspired by the work carried out at Harvard University. "They were looking at exactly the same problems: what do you do in a university whose reputation is largely based on research to make sure teaching is equally good?" she said.

"We are in effect a one-faculty institution. They were multi-faculty, dealing a lot with innovations in science teaching. I think our advantage is that we can say across the school 'we can expect this'. Although there are differences in how you teach anthropology and how you teach maths, you can more or less set a structure of contact hours, and expectations."

The recommendations should take two years to implement.

Ruhana Ali, education and welfare officer at LSE's student union and a member of the task force, said: "It is fantastic to see these recommendations put in place. We will be looking to see how they are implemented and at the outcomes for students."

Task force strategy to drive excellence

  • £1.5 million a year to hire 25 new lecturers
  • A maximum class size of 15 for masters courses
  • Staff-student contact time to be "redefined" to focus on academic advice and feedback
  • The use of graduate teaching assistants will be reduced in some departments at masters level
  • Teaching performance to be taken into account when academics apply for promotion
  • More training, including for students and staff for whom English is not their first language
  • New teaching committee will examine new ideas and good practice on teaching and assessment.

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