Why should academics learn how to lecture when their careers depend on research, asks Alison Utley.
As the notion of students-as-paying-customers gains firmer ground, they are increasingly unlikely to put up with bad teaching. But there are no formal qualifications required for entry to, or progression within, the academic profession.
Most British universities offer some form of training for new lecturers, lasting anything from 40 to 200 hours, but there is little consistency of approach or style.
Some programmes are compulsory, leading to a formal qualification which may even be a condition of tenure. The majority are often just a brief induction to the university and its facilities.
As a result, students' exposure to good or bad teaching is largely a matter of luck - even the Association of University Teachers says so.
The concern that entrants to the academic profession do not necessarily know how to teach, whatever their level of research expertise, has led to a significant upsurge of development programmes over the past five years.
But the profession is still a long way from the formal training levels established in medicine, law, accountancy or school-teaching. Part of the reason is the resistance to an externally imposed formal accreditation system.
Graham Gibbs, of the Oxford Centre for Staff Development at Oxford Brookes University, dismisses the belief that research training, particularly a PhD, is adequate preparation for teaching. He argues that all the relevant research indicates that teaching and research are unconnected variables.
"Teaching in higher education needs professionalising," Professor Gibbs says. "It is about time we had a national agreement about the broad scale and nature of training, a requirement that new entrants must be trained before achieving tenure and that experienced academics require periodic updating, just as in other professions."
This, he says, is the single measure that could have the most impact on the quality of university teaching and it would not be all that difficult to achieve.
Some headway is being made by the Staff and Educational Development Association. Its accreditation steering committee, chaired by Nottingham Trent vice chancellor Ray Cowell, has devised a scheme which aims to ensure a common and appropriate standard for lecturers.
Universities can submit their training programmes to SEDA for approval and so far 23 have successfully done so and a further 20 are going through the process. A number of overseas institutions have also expressed an interest.
To gain approval programmes must be examined and moderated externally and involve a mix of self, peer and tutor-assessment. But Liz Beattie, one of the scheme designers, stresses that it is not intended to prescribe but rather to identify underpinning principles and values of good teacher training, plus their outcomes.
"When we began this in 1990 there were already examples of good practice and we didn't want to reinvent the wheel," she said. "We can influence but we don't seek to be authoritarian."
The majority of universities taking part are former polytechnics. Those steadfastly refusing to take accreditation seriously are increasingly out of step, according to Ms Beattie. The sticking point is the still strongly held belief in some more traditional institutions that research is to be valued and teaching is of only secondary importance. In that atmosphere even peer review of teaching will struggle to take off.
There are other objections, principally on grounds of cost. But Professor Gibbs believes that those universities with the least adequate initial training are by and large the best resourced. Oxford Brookes has a compulsory teacher training programme leading to a certificate for new lecturers and Professor Gibbs estimates that about 30 United Kingdom universities are following that pattern.
More will follow if the Association of University Teachers has its way although assistant general secretary Paul Cottrell does not underestimate the task.
"There is a lot of resistance from academics who can't see why they need accreditation for teaching when their career prospects depend on research," he said. "Often the incentive is just not there."
Another argument against accreditation is the danger of strengthening the existing trend of separating teaching and research. Nevertheless the AUT is committed to achieving better recognition for good teaching and believes that qualifications for academics will eventually become compulsory.
"One way to achieve this is to encourage the development of teaching in a scholarly way rather than focusing on the practical skills," says Mr Cottrell. "We need to concentrate on the intellectual context not the use of the overhead projector."
The AUT is planning a conference to air the issues next month and last November published a discussion paper on professional accreditation which has prompted a great deal of feedback, much of it positive (THES, November 10).
The SEDA scheme is cautiously backed in the paper, although it says it is not yet clear whether SEDA has the potential to become a major force.
Mr Cottrell argues that the necessary training infrastructure will not develop unless there is a demand for it.
He says: "An attractive scheme of accreditation, providing real professional benfits to staff could be the source of that demand and the key that helps unlock the resources to build the infrastructure."
SEDA Teacher Accreditation Scheme
Objectives and outcomes. a Design a teaching programme from a course outline or syllabus b Use a wide and appropriate range of teaching methods to work with small or large groups or one to one c Provide support to students on academic and pastoral matters d Use a wide range of assessment techniques and enable students to monitor their own progress e Use a range of self, peer and student monitoring and evaluation techniques f Perform effectively the teaching support and administrative tasks involved in teaching in the department g Develop personal and professional coping strategies h Reflect on personal and professional practice and development, assess future needs and plan for continuing professional development