AT SOME universities it would appear that research performance has become a key factor in redundancy policies, with alleged under-performers being asked to consider retirement or severance. It is hard to believe that such actions will not strengthen the already powerful pressures for individuals and departments to focus on research, possibly to the detriment of teaching and learning.
Nonetheless, there is little point in bewailing such tendencies. They are entirely logical for some research-based universities. Rather, the issue is finding correcting or balancing approaches by effectively rewarding good teachers in a reasonably compelling and authoritative way. Selectivity and competition, reward and sanction, should be applicable principles in both teaching and research.
An interesting question would be to ask whether any teaching-first university would have the nerve to warn under-performing lecturers in the classroom that they could lose their jobs.
There are several reasons why we are unlikely to find any university threatening to axe academics on the grounds of teaching deficiency. Many feel that improved performance is best encouraged through appraisal and staff development, or through promotions processes. At an individual level, mechanisms also exist for identifying and dealing with under-performance, although these are usually used infrequently.
More importantly, universities as a rule do not have robust processes for evaluating teaching activity. Students generally are relatively uncomplaining, and teaching still remains a largely private act.
Crucially, there is no clear correlation between teaching under-performance and loss of funding for an institution. There is little evidence that the student applications marketplace is influenced by such matters, while, outside Scotland, quality assessment has not been tied to allocations by the funding councils. In contrast, comparatively poor grades in the Research Assessment Exercise have cost some universities considerable sums of money. The RAE provides institutions with a credible, peer-driven indicator of performance upon which they may wish to act.
In the absence of a teaching assessment system upon which sizeable amounts of institutional funding depend, what steps are available to improve the status of teaching? An important move would be the compulsory registration and accreditation of staff.
The prospect of the Labour government introducing a General Teaching Council is an opportunity to press for it to contain a higher education division. An early task for such a division would be the evaluation and recognition of initial training schemes developed by individual universities and others.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has formed a group to develop a national framework for accrediting higher education teaching. Other bodies will need to play their part, however.
Individual institutions could reward existing staff who achieve GTC registration through automatic incremental progression or promotion. The funding councils could fund increment-attracting GTC registrations in institutions, perhaps by reimbursing the costs of the incremental rewards.
A statutory GTC with a distinctive higher education component would be a key part of the process of reprofessionalising teaching. It would allow an important self-regulatory responsibility for the continuous improvement of staff knowledge and skills.
Sir Malcolm Thornton, ex-chair of the parliamentary select committee on education and employment, argues cogently that any such GTC should involve the whole education service. Only with such an approach is education - including higher education - likely to be able to rebut the charge that a self-regulatory GTC is a conspiracy of the laity.
Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside