Quality matters, so let's get serious about it

April 18, 1997

Alan Jenkins argues for a reasoned and radical approach to raising esteem for teaching in higher education. I was delighted to see Brian Fender's recent plea for a "national debate that will enable us all to give teachers and departments the esteem and rewards they have earned".

Praiseworthy too was his statement that the "principal goal of universities . . . is that students should learn to the maximum of their capability", and his pointing out that three-quarters of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's grant "is to support teaching and just a quarter goes to research".

In joining this debate I am starting from two assumptions. I assume that after May 1 (and after Dearing), whichever party is in power, there will be no significant increase in (public) funding for higher education and there will be strong requirements for external accountability.

So here are my four key suggestions: * To reform the teaching quality assessment exercise * To professionalise HE teaching * To require institutions to promote quality teachers * To radically restructure the re-search assessment exercise.

Whatever the limitations of the TQA process it has required institutions to present evidence of teaching quality and to record what is being attempted.

However, its procedures encourage making an effort before the event. What is needed is a revised TQA which encourages departments to discuss the areas they wish to change and improve, and then push resources (including staff time) to help them develop those areas after they have been reviewed. For most staff, TQA is currently a burden to get through and then something that can be forgotten until five -soon, perhaps, eight - years down the line.

TQA also has to be changed to give hard-hitting and accurate information to students upon which they can make informed choices on institutions and courses. Brian Fender commends the present reports for providing "a wealth of information for prospective students".

I suggest that students checking these reports on the Web will be struck by their utter blandness, their lack of hard information and how they fail to reveal the impact of underfunding and the lack of a system-wide concern for teaching quality. We need to bury these bland reports and replace them with well-researched institutional and course guides for students.

Recognising that students will be providing more of their income, and that they have considered accurate information, institutions will have to compete in guaranteeing quality teaching. That will help teaching achieve the esteem it deserves. In contrast, the fund for the development of teaching and learning affects few staff and brings such limited rewards its benefits will be minimal.

My second suggestion is that the new quality agency should require institutions to professionalise teaching. All full-time teachers should be required to have an initial teaching qualification such as that developed and accredited by the Staff Education Development Agency. Informed sources indicate that Dearing is likely to suggest something along these lines.

There should also be requirements and incentives for continued professional development, for teachers' continued learning to be accredited and rewarded. What about a system-wide advanced qualification for experienced teachers which gave them, say, three increments on the national pay scale? That would raise the esteem of teaching and teaching quality.

My third suggestion is for the new quality agency to require institutions to have appointment and promotion procedures that value quality teaching (and to have authoritative researched evidence that that is the case and is perceived as such by staff).

Research by Wright and O'Neill at Dalhousie University demonstrated that recognition of teaching in promotion decisions is probably the most important factor in improving the quality of teaching in an institution.

Brian Fender recognises the importance of this issue and states that now "universities take more account of teaching prowess when promoting staff". What is his evidence for that statement?

My knowledge of the system is that while there are isolated examples, such as the University of East London's Readers In Teaching appointments, the general pattern is that identified by the Higher Education Quality Council's Lear-ning From Audits 1 and 2. Audit 1 identified a move - particularly in the former polytechnics - from an emphasis on teaching quality in promotions "in favour of more weight being placed on research achievements".

Audit 2 identified the same issue while pointing out that teaching is an increasingly complex and challenging activity. So students are paying for more of their education to institutions who are effectively devaluing teaching in promotion decisions.

My fourth suggestion is to radically change the research assessment exercise which has brought all the narrow values of Thatcherism into academic life, from the pursuit of short-term financial returns to the failure to value the academic community.

It has also grossly distorted all institutions to prioritise a very particular form of research (publications in refereed journals), to downplay the production of teaching materials (textbooks and courseware) and put at the bottom of the academic pecking order course design, classroom teaching, concern for student employability and the unsung, but all important, role of personal tutor. That is the reality of UK higher education.

So while I welcome Brian Fender's call for a debate on how to raise teaching quality, I conclude with a confrontational observation. To call for such a debate two years after being in office and after key policies with which he has been associated have undermined a concern for teaching quality seems a strange way of encouraging such a debate. But then this is the election season.

Alan Jenkins is at thecentre for staff and learning development, OxfordBrookes University.

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