State puts weight behind teaching qualification data

Academics fear thin end of wedge

Source: Getty

Prepare the numbers: universities are now asking staff to declare their teaching qualifications for a Hesa exercise

Plans to let students judge universities on how many of their academics hold teaching qualifications are moving ahead thanks to coalition support, despite academics’ fears that the data could be used for “foolish” ends and help to make such qualifications compulsory.

The government said that it wanted students to be able to consider teaching qualification data when making their choice of university. It left the door open to inclusion of the figures in institutions’ Key Information Sets, which would increase the likelihood of universities pressuring staff to gain the qualifications.

Universities are currently asking staff to declare their teaching qualifications for a sector-wide data collection exercise run by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which will publish a breakdown of the figures by institution for the first time next year.

The coalition’s 2011 Higher Education White Paper recommended that universities publish “anonymised information for prospective and existing students about the teaching qualifications, fellowships and expertise of their teaching staff”.

Despite the White Paper’s demise, Hesa now states that it is “compulsory” for all higher education institutions to complete data returns on staff teaching qualifications.

It adds that it has worked with the Higher Education Academy to prepare for gathering the data, with most qualifications to be recognised requiring HEA accreditation.

Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education, University of London and now professor of public sector policy and management at the University of Bath, said it would be “foolish to draw simplistic conclusions” about the data “when institutions have very different histories and staff profiles”.

Todd Huffman, lecturer in physics at the University of Oxford, said he was concerned that the information would be used as a measure of individual teaching skills and ability, thus forcing more academics to acquire the qualifications.

Dr Huffman has received an email from Oxford as part of a staff survey on teaching qualifications that will inform the university’s Hesa return.

“At no point in the email did it ask about my teaching experience,” he said. “I had to reply that I was unqualified, even though I’ve been teaching since I was in grad school almost 25 years ago.” He added: “If you want to maintain an active research life, you need to devote…24 hours in the day towards your research. These [teaching] qualifications take time and effort to obtain, and anything that takes away from research time makes it more difficult to stay in the research excellence framework, which is hard enough anyway.”

The email on the Hesa data collection suggested that teaching qualifications were “on the cusp” of becoming a requirement, Dr Huffman argued.

While compulsory higher teaching qualifications were suggested by the Browne Review in 2010, the academy has remained strongly opposed to them. For example, more than 70 per cent of respondents to an HEA consultation on the issue, published in November 2011, disagreed with compulsory discipline-based teaching qualifications.

The consultation followed HEA proposals in 2010 for standardised teacher training for all new academics, plans championed by Craig Mahoney, the body’s chief executive at the time.

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokeswoman said: “We want students to have access to a range of information that will help them make the best choices of course and university…We think [teaching qualifications data] is information that prospective students may want to consider when choosing their courses.”

Asked whether BIS would like to see the teaching qualification data included in the KIS, the spokeswoman said that the Higher Education Funding Council for England planned to review KIS “and Unistats in early 2014. This will be the first opportunity to consider additions or changes to the KIS items.”

Stephanie Marshall, who took over as the HEA’s chief executive this month, said it was “essential that those who teach our students are qualified to teach and have the appropriate skills to do so”.

“For new academics this might mean working towards fellowship of the HEA through a ‘new to teaching’ accredited programme, which many higher education providers offer,” she said.

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