Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, could not have been clearer in his first major speech on higher education last month: "We have become very good at developing criteria for assessing research excellence in universities, and for incentivising research excellence. We also need to look for ways of incentivising excellence in academic teaching."
While this is welcome to all those who care about the student experience, it is telling that it needs to be said at all.
Last year, I argued in my submission to John Denham, the First Secretary's predecessor as Secretary of State for Higher Education, that we had a long way to go in recognising and rewarding good teaching in universities. Yes, we have a range of awards; yes, the Government has funded initiatives such as the centres for excellence in teaching and learning and the Higher Education Academy. And yes, basic training in teaching skills for academics, linked to a UK-wide professional-standards framework, has become the norm rather than the exception. The threshold of teaching quality has risen, and teaching scores highly in the National Student Survey.
But all this has failed to crack the nut of academic scepticism. A recent survey of more than 2,500 staff showed that academics still believe teaching is under-rewarded and unrecognised by universities and colleges in comparison with research. Many of them think that formal recognition is given to teaching in name only and that promotion can be obtained on research achievement alone. It's hard to see how we can make progress in enhancing the student experience, or indeed maintain its quality, if we don't tackle the problem at source.
Mandelson made it clear that he is looking to higher education to put its own house in order. This is a great opportunity to respond to that injunction. Excellence, he says, is not cheap. But fixing this particular problem is more a matter of will than resources. The problem is that too often we pay lip service to teaching in universities. Promotion and appointment criteria don't always reward the quality of teaching. Academic managers often don't lead in a way that puts teaching on the same pedestal as research.
With a very modest amount of additional funding, the Government could incentivise excellence in academic teaching. Sometimes people say that we don't have robust criteria for assessing teaching for promotions and appointments in higher education, but that's nonsense. What's missing is the will to apply them.
Universities should adapt existing criteria so that they are appropriate to their specific missions, based on good practice here and overseas. Institutions should then scrupulously apply them to all appointments and promotions. They should also introduce training for staff involved in making promotion decisions. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education should be given the job of instructing heads of departments and deans on how to put research and teaching on an equal footing. The Quality Assurance Agency should review progress and monitor staff perceptions of the effects of these changes.
There's compelling evidence that relatively minor changes like these would alter academics' perceptions and motivate them to teach even better.
Take promotion criteria, for example. At the University of Sydney, we made it a condition of all promotions - no exceptions - that the candidate had to demonstrate superior or outstanding performance in teaching. Excellence in research was also required - but it could not be substituted for excellence in teaching. The effect was to ensure that no one could ever again say that this highly research-intensive university paid only lip service to teaching. I like to think that this played some part in the measurable improvements in students' experiences of the quality of teaching during my time at Sydney.
An investment in recognising teaching excellence in higher education would be an investment in the future.