LSE set to refocus on teaching

December 7, 2007

Task force to probe student and staff concerns over perceived bias towards research. Melanie Newman reports. The London School of Economics has set up a task force to improve its teaching amid concerns that only staff research is valued and following student complaints over quality.

The International Student Barometer survey this year placed the LSE 53rd out of 56 UK universities for teaching quality. The Barometer, an international survey by i-Graduate, the international student insight group, came after an internal report on teaching earlier this year by Janet Hartley, the LSE's pro-director for teaching and learning.

Her report identified a perception among staff that research was the driver of their careers and expressed concerns about an over-reliance on graduate teaching assistants, who teach about 75 per cent of undergraduate classes.

Professor Hartley told The Times Higher that the LSE had decided to review its teaching in June after a similar initiative by Harvard University, which recommended improved evaluation of teaching and the consideration of new teaching methods.

"The review is not a kneejerk reaction to the poor survey results," she said. "The issues raised at Harvard were relevant to us. It is also a research-oriented university where teaching does not get the same prominence."

Her report suggests that some academics felt "the only thing that matters for promotion ... is publications". It also stresses the need to reward quality teaching, noting that although prizes for teaching excellence had been introduced, there was "little collective discussion within departments ... about whether there is anything distinctive about LSE teaching".

Professor Hartley said: "We have the prizes and give incremental rewards to teachers when they pass their major review, but that doesn't feed into promotions. We are looking at promotion and financial rewards for departments and individuals. We also want to encourage people to develop new programmes to ensure our teaching does not stagnate." She said: "This is not a crisis. Overall, students are more satisfied than dissatisfied with their teaching."

At a students union meeting last month, LSE director Howard Davies was forced to defend the institution's fees in light of the concerns about teaching quality.

Rajan Patel, who writes for the LSE student newspaper The Beaver , said students' main gripe was with the quality of academics' English and a lack of access to department "stars".

A recent Beaver article quoted an economics undergraduate as saying: "I have to write in a very simple way because if I write in a complex way I need to explain to my class teachers what it means."

Mr Patel said: "The lecturers lack confidence in front of the class." He added that interaction with academic leaders was patchy across the institution, with students on some courses having to wait until the second or third year before meeting senior figures.

Sir Howard said the LSE was "a very unusual university ... Few institutions in the world are as international. The task force will build on these strengths. At the moment, it is surveying departments to get their views on teaching and to gain a better understanding of who does the teaching and how they are supported."

The task force will produce conclusions before the end of this academic year for implementation as soon as possible, he said.

Chris Husbands of the University and College Union said: "I have no problem with the review so long as it does not unfairly disadvantage staff in subjects that have always scored less well in student evaluations because they are harder or more boring. My view as an academic is that in the longer term the review is unlikely to result in movement up the league tables."

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