Time for a revolution

October 3, 1997

The Institute for Learning and Teaching must abandon traditional thinking to improve lecturing in universities, says Graham Gibbs

The Dearing report recommended the establishment of a national Institute for Learning and Teaching in higher education and moves are underway to bring it into being. But institutes within other professions are not noted for their radical approach to change and a more vibrant leitmotiv should be established from the start.

Dearing charged this institute with several tasks, primarily the accreditation of teachers in higher education, coordination of the production of electronic learning materials and the development of research into teaching in higher education. This is important and welcome, but these are only three of a range of possible roles, some of which could have more impact on teaching quality. We should seize the opportunity to establish a more radical agenda to improve teaching in our universities and colleges.

Teaching is still predominantly traditional and change has been painfully slow. The context is changing ever faster and bolder approaches to supporting more rapid change are required.

Until academics see that it is in their personal interest to pay attention to teaching, rather than only being rewarded for their research, all other initiatives to improve teaching will struggle. The Robbins report identified this structural flaw 35 years ago and the Higher Education Quality Council has repeatedly highlighted the almost complete failure of institutions to tackle it. The huge and influential "Roles and Rewards" initiative in theUnited States has helped hundreds of institutions to develop mechanisms that recognise and reward excellence in teaching in ways that parallel the recognition and reward of research.

There are many models, from the US, Australia, Holland and even from within the United Kingdom, of how to establish legitimate and dignified careers for teachers. The new institute should document these practices and support institutions in adapting and adopting them.

Given the lack of progress made in the past 30 years, some leverage is probably necessary. The funding councils could make a balanced career structure a condition of funding and require the Quality Assessment Agency to check that it had been implemented.

Subjects are at the centre of quality assurance, through quality assessment, external examiners and new standards for degrees. They could also be at the centre of the improvement of teaching. The institute should support subject associations to build vigorous subject-specific teaching communities, to parallel their existing research communities, with the task of improving teaching within the subject.

Excellent models of such communities exist, such as the Geography Discipline Network supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. If quality assessment is to improve, rather than only to judge, then it has to be capable of identifying an agenda for the development of teaching in subjects in its subject overview reports.

Development funding should then be targeted on this agenda and channelled through subject networks. We have seen too many artificial networks and initiatives that fall over as soon as funding stops. Subjects are the most solid basis to work from. The institute should act as the hub of these subject teaching networks, linking and building on their achievements.

Efforts to improve teaching are largely uncoordinated at a national level with a range of funding agencies and bodies operating in parallel with overlapping foci in ignorance of each other's efforts. The total is less than the sum of the parts.

The DFEE has funded projects and networks with little reference to funding council initiatives or existing networks. Each agency has its territory to protect and there is no neutral ground on which to meet. The institute should act as a coordinating body, not itself allocating funds or running initiatives, but bringing agencies and funding bodies together under broad areas of overlapping interest. "Skills for employment" is an obvious place to start. The provision and development of learning resources is another.

National teaching development initiatives on a grand scale have been mounted largely without reference to available research literature on their possible impact and without putting in place research and evaluation programmes that would be capable of identifying any impact. There must be more thorough and scholarly approaches to initiatives if good money is not to be thrown after bad.

Evaluation methodologies should be established at the same time as initiatives with data pooled centrally, as with "evidence-based medicine". The institute should be the source of expertise for such research, enhancing the quality of initiatives in ways that build confidence in them across the sector.

The institute need not conduct research, but it could identify where expertise resides and make it more accessible.

If funds are to follow students to a greater extent this can only have a positive impact on teaching quality if students are well informed about the quality of teaching and learning before they enrol. At present they are not.

Australia has a Good Universities Guide and anyone critical of such guides should first compare them to university prospectuses and consider which is more misleading. From the photographs in prospectuses one would think that no institution had classes larger than four, or more than two students in a lab or the library.

The UK has a huge advantage over Australia in collating comparative evidence about teaching quality. Quality assessment reports contain expensively collected information and comparative ratings that students do not read. Imagine what a few juicy quotes, positive or negative, could do for recruitment. To this could be added research information about quality.

Again Australia provides a model in the form of the Course Experience Questionnaire, administered to all Australian students with the graduate destinations survey and informing a public report comparing every degree programme in Australia. It would cost about 30 pence per student to do the same in the UK.

The institute would provide an enormous service to students by publishing such a consumer guide containing soundly researched evidence. Market pressures would be brought to bear on teaching quality, and 200,000 prospective students buying a guide for Pounds 15 ought to help the institute with some of its other activities.

None of this agenda requires additional funding, only a more focused use of what is a substantial teaching development budget located with several agencies, most noticeably HEFCE. The funding councils cannot use their funds effectively to bring about change without large-scale collaboration and involvement from academics, subjects and institutions. The institute cannot do much without funding from somewhere.

There is no sign that the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals will fund it, so they are in no position to control its agenda. The institute will have to work with the funding councils and the funding councils need the institute. It is time to start talking.

Graham Gibbs is co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Practice at the Open University. He is the author of the recent report A Teaching and Learning Strategy for Higher Education commissioned by HEFCE. The ideas expressed here are his personal views.

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