Why I... believe the Institute for Learning and Teaching in HE is pointless

March 28, 2003

The Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education came into being as a result of the Dearing report, which proposed that its functions be "to accredit programmes of training for higher education teachers; to commission research and development in learning and teaching practices; and to stimulate innovation".

Having received initial funding from the government, the ILTHE aims eventually to to pass on the cost of accreditation, research and innovation to individual academics.

What does the ILTHE member get that she could not get by other, less costly, means? Let's start with "accreditation". The sensible method for accreditation would be a standard nationally recognised qualification in teaching in higher education that, like the Postgraduate Certificate in Education, includes subject-specific training. We do not need a membership-based organisation to deliver this, and the ILTHE does not deliver it anyway; what it gets us, if we have followed one of the approved accreditation routes, is the right to hand over our money.

What about research and innovation? We can get all this without putting our hands in our pockets. For starters, we have in-house staff development programmes. There is no need to duplicate these. Second, we have the Learning and Teaching Support Network, which is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The LTSN, being based around subject centres, delivers staff development, research, teaching-related grants, open-access web-based materials and other things that actually stand a chance of being relevant to one's own teaching.

Are there any other "benefits" of ILTHE membership? The ILTHE website says there are "potential career advantages". For example, "membership of the ILTHE offers evidence of individual commitment to high-quality teaching and learning, thus demonstrating the need for light-touch quality assurance procedures". But, again, that can just as well be delivered through institutions' own training programmes, not to mention peer review and student evaluations.

Another "benefit", rather disturbingly, is the fact that "a number of universities link ILTHE membership to probation, career advancement or promotion". If this is true, those universities ought to think carefully about their probation and promotion policies. I cannot think of any virtues that ILTHE membership demonstrates that cannot be shown by other, cheaper, means.

The accredited training courses that most universities run for probationers are disliked by staff because their largely generic nature overlooks the huge differences in the level of experience of new academic staff and ignores the varied learning, teaching and assessment methods that are appropriate to different disciplines. The ILTHE's criteria for institutional accreditation encourage this generic approach. Courses are supposed to develop "knowledge of generic pedagogical issues" but only "support participants to help them engage with discipline-specific issues".

There is no requirement that courses adapt to staff with varied teaching experience.

The drive for ILTHE accreditation can also cause institutions to increase the workload associated with their training courses. Accredited courses involve an average of 400 hours of total study - that's ten weeks' full-time work.

There has been widespread concern at the government's apparent intention to sever the connection between university teaching and research. Having a "professional organisation" that represents academics solely insofar as they are teachers confers apparent legitimacy on that attitude. The ILTHE constantly refers to teaching in higher education as a "profession".

Teaching, in isolation from research, is not a profession - not yet, anyway.

Helen Beebee
Lecturer in philosophy
Department of government
University of Manchester

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