Universities take back teaching

May 15, 1998

Universities are breaking ranks as they face threats to their autonomy in theshape of new quality and teaching regimes. Alison Utley and Tony Tysome report.

THE launch of the Institute for Learning and Teaching is becoming inextricably linked with concerns over bureaucratic meddling in the business of universities and the new proposals from the Quality Assurance Agency.

The fears may be due partly to unfortunate timing but there is a perceived overlap in aims. It seems that everyone, including the funding council, is now setting and improving standards of teaching in higher education.

Roger King, chair of the ILT's planning group, said that in ten years' time this will be seen as a defining year for university teaching. His aim is to establish a scholarly professional body conceived and owned by its members. It would be separate from the QAA and the government, he said, and the governance and activities of the ILT would be entirely distinct.

This will be a relief to the likes of Lewis Elton, professor of higher education at University College London, who sees the QAA's "sledge-hammer" approach leading to a compliance that the more traditional universities are refusing to tolerate.

"The traditionalists do have a very serious point here because the QAA is not the right way to improve teaching," he said.

"Universities must develop their own strategies for making teaching more transparent and record achievements for the benefit of students and employers. That is a job that the ILT can help them with. On no account must it be seen to be doing the dirty work of the QAA, however, because that will be the death of the institute."

The institute is concentrating on setting up an accreditation framework that will appeal to older universities as well as the newer teaching-led institutions as a national standard. The difficulty to be overcome is that many of the traditional universities, in contrast to their newer counterparts, believe mastery of a subject enables an academic to teach.

Professor King said: "Our approach to accreditation will be based on outcomes. It will not be a prescribed course but it will enable universities to tailor a programme of professional development according to their own mission."

Accreditation programmes must engage staff intellectually, he added. "They should not become a technical hoop to be jumped through just because they are a requirement." In the beginning the emphasis will probably be on persuading academics to gain accreditation to the institute. This might require 300 to 400 hours of training and reflection. Any mandatory licence to practise is still some way off although likely to become established eventually.

Professor King insists the idea is not a threat to universities' autonomy:

"We are trying to be responsive to this and our early voluntary approach should give us time to demonstrate our value," he said.

As regional consultations got under way this week, some questions were being answered.

But precisely how and where the institute will operate, and who will fund it, will not be known until consultants Coopers & Lybrand present their business plan in June.

There is a strong argument in favour of individual subscriptions as a key funding component, according to Professor King.

There would also be a good case for asking government for more money to support a research programme into learning and teaching in higher education that would underpin any accreditation framework. Talks were also being held with the research councils, the funding councils, and private and public-sector bodies.

"Accreditation requires resourcing at both central and institutional level," Professor King said.

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