Teaching status scrutinised

May 20, 2005

A study of the impact of recent schemes and initiatives designed to raise the status of teaching in universities is being planned by the Higher Education Academy later this year.

The HEA is already planning an evaluation of the National Teaching Fellowships. Panels of referees are currently sifting through piles of nominations for the fifth annual cohort of fellowships, which allow academics to take time to pursue teaching activities.

Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the academy, said: "We have lots of anecdotal evidence and I would be surprised if these schemes had not had an impact, but are we getting value for money? That's an issue for us. We want to do systematic work to find out what effect these initiatives are having."

It is a question many leading figures in teaching and learning are asking.

Changing attitudes

According to Liz Beaty, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's director of learning and teaching, there has been a discernable shift in attitudes.

"There have been a lot of initiatives to raise the status of teaching, money for good-quality teaching and initiatives to build a more strategic approach to valuing teaching. Things have changed a lot but, because it has been gradual, it seems invisible. It really is a different scene from ten or 15 years ago. Teaching is on the agenda now where it wasn't before."

This build-up of teaching and learning strategies allowed universities to put together successful bids for centres of excellence in teaching and learning, under the £315 million initiative Hefce launched this year.

"The evidence wouldn't have been there a few years ago," she said.

"It's not as much money as the research assessment exercise but it did make a difference."

David Watson, Brighton University's outgoing vice-chancellor, said he was convinced that being an effective teacher was high up the list of intangible benefits that attracted bright people into academic careers.

"I'm quite optimistic about the future of teaching in higher education," he said. "It's an important part of the motivation of academics and we've been oversold this bill of goods that the RAE is the only game in town. I know lots of good researchers who are deeply committed to teaching."

Mike Bradford, professor of higher education at Manchester University, meanwhile, said the fellowships were important to individuals and the submission process was constructive. "But if faculties don't do something with them, then that's a loss to the system. Manchester funds them beyond the award to help develop pedagogic research."

Teaching still second place

But others argue that teaching remains the poor bedfellow to research in academic life.

Lewis Elton, professor of higher education at University College London, said: "Since the RAE is so important, it gets time preference everywhere.

It's difficult to find time to do anything other than straight teaching.

Pedagogic research is only going in by the back door. People face huge obstacles to do better teaching. It's not just that there's no incentive - there are strong disincentives, at least in the bigger universities."

Another higher education expert said that one view that prevailed was that teaching was for losers. And as the emphasis on research ramps up ahead of the next RAE, this situation is aggravated.

Ultimately, university management and promotion committees have a key role to play in the debate. "Universities say they value teaching but everyone knows that it doesn't count for an awful lot when you come up for a senior lecturer position. Getting to professorial level on the basis of teaching is practically impossible," an official for the Association of University Teachers said.

According to Graham Gibbs and Trevor Habeshaw's 2002 report on recognising and rewarding excellent teaching, the proportion of institutions that are including recognition and reward mechanisms in their learning and teaching strategy increased from 12 per cent in 1998 to 65 per cent in 2000.

But on the ground, some argued that few institutions practised what they preached. Liz Allen, education director for lecturers' union Natfhe, was sceptical about promotion for teachers. "They are not as valued or as highly placed as researchers."

Research-based evidence

According to Alan Jenkins, professor of higher education at Oxford Brookes University, there are international concerns over the value of teaching but only at a symbolic level.

"There have been various attempts to raise the profile of teaching but we have got to get hard, research-based evidence to guide us in this. The rewards are not commensurate with the importance of teaching and learning in terms of national budgets."

Professor Jenkins advocated a rethink of the way Hefce allocated research money to avoid a negative impact on teaching. The RAE greatly extenuated the problem throughout the sector. Research into higher education, however worthy, was not deemed academic, he said. "Even if you got rid of the RAE you still have the culture and the people in leadership positions who have that culture entrenched."

He said that although the fellowships were important for the groundswell they caused, he doubted many fellows got through the glass ceiling.

"Institutional leaders are caught in a treadmill of funding, policy initiatives and concern for reputation," he said. "If you look at job ads they ask for high-level research activity. Young academics quickly work out what counts. The RAE has totally distorted institutional priorities. The big losers are students, even if they are not aware of it."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

KEY INITIATIVES

  • Learning and teaching strategy, Hefce (1999)
  • Learning and Teaching Subject Network (now part of the Higher Education Academy)
  • Fund for Development in Teaching and Learning, which provided money for collaboration projects across institutions to develop curriculum and content
  • Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund
  • National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (2000)
  • Centres of excellence in teaching and learning (2005)
  • For 2005-06, Hefce allocated £4.4 billion to learning and teaching

'More to Oxford than research'

"At worst, the research assessment exercise culture could lead to the production of thousands of research papers that nobody will ever read," said David Acheson, the first Oxford University academic to get a National Teaching Fellowship last year. "Compulsion is no good. With teaching, as with research, the really good stuff gets done by those who really want to do it," he said.

Dr Acheson is an applied mathematician with an enviable research record - he discovered a remarkable anti-gravity phenomenon ten years ago. He is using the £50,000 award to write a book that will attempt a breakthrough in helping people to understand and enjoy mathematics.

He said any notion that Oxford was purely research-oriented was wrong.

"People take their teaching as seriously as their research, even though promotion is, I think, still largely dependent on research.

"I've had some exciting times with research, but my priority for the next two years will be my fellowship project. I just want to contribute to maths - and other people's enjoyment of it - as best I can."

The fellowships have helped raise the profile of teaching in universities, and Dr Acheson thought that if the Royal Society or British Academy were to back similar schemes, this would have a major impact, particularly in the more long-established universities.

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