A major proposal in the Dearing report is the creation of an Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, thus enhancing the status of teaching and learning. The institute's three main functions would be to approve institutional and other schemes for training teachers in higher education, commissioning research and development in learning and teaching, and stimulating innovation. It will, in effect, combine the role of a professional body for teachers and lecturers with that of a clearing house for information about best practice.
The importance which the committee attaches to the proposal is clear from the language in which it is described: "The establishment of such an organisation is a fundamental feature within the interlocking elements of our proposals for change." Its functions are seen as a package, with the "soft" function of information dissemination complementing the "hard" one of teacher accreditation.
One of the strongest common findings of quality audit and quality assessment is that insufficient resources are put into the identification and dissemination of good educational practice. The idea of a national body to focus attention on enhancement is not new. It was one of the functions of the old Council for National Academic Awards, carried on in part by the Higher Education Quality Council and now by the Quality Assessment Authority. Other players in the enhancement business include the Higher Education Funding Councils, the United Kingdom Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, the Staff Education Development Agency, the Open Learning Foundation and some institutionally based units. The new institute should be in a position to overcome the resultant fragmentation of effort.
To find a modus vivendi with the existing players will require statesmanship on the part of the representative bodies, mainly the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, who will establish the new organisation. However, the institutions already "own" a number of the relevant agencies so that some accommodation should be possible. The existing bodies should either be absorbed by the new agency or assume a very clear role in relation to it, for example as potential sub-contractors. The funding councils' interests could be handled through service-level agreements of the kind being set up with the QAA.
Other challenges include the need to engage with staff at all levels of education, the need to find both the right products and the right delivery mechanisms, and the need to find a suitable basis of funding.
Approval of training schemes will be the first and foremost link to staff. The institute must be seen by staff as having a credible accreditation role: the quality and standards of the schemes endorsed must therefore be exceptional. Staff have to be able to see time spent on educational improvements as time well spent. Discussion on raising the status of teaching has tended to focus on financial rewards but in the current climate issues of time are nearly as significant for many staff.
Another key is to work with the grain of higher education - success depends upon disciplines seeing themselves as owning it. The institute could be a broker between discipline-based groups and individual institutions or groups of institutions. It could become a powerful force, especially if it was also able to find creative ways of using the journals on teaching and learning which many disciplines have established. Working with subject associations, professional bodies, interested employers and employers' organisations may also help it to achieve the right balance in products and delivery mechanisms.
Finally the institute will need to find a means of financing which retains the support of the sector as a whole. One way of doing this would be for the charge made for approving schemes of training to be set at a slightly higher rate than is necessary to cover its costs, with the residue subsidising the creation of materials and services. If individual institutions wanted a more intensive supply of such services they could either pay a further subscription, or simply buy things on a fee basis. Subjects are relevant here too since, if innovations are mostly discipline-based, the costs (to the institute) would be considerably less because of the hours of work put in voluntarily by enthusiasts.
Perhaps the most fundamental challenge the institute faces is to overcome the mania for finding a competitive edge over other institutions which has imperilled collective enterprises of this kind in the past. Together with the proposals on standards and quality in the Dearing report, the institute will hopefully be a means for reasserting what David Watson has called the "competitive gene" in higher education. Cooperation is of the essence of higher education. How extraordinary it will be if such collaboration does not extend to teaching and learning.
Chief executive, Higher Education Quality Council