University teaching must be awarded “financial incentives as well as prestige” to boost its status in the academy, David Willetts has said.
In an exclusive Times Higher Education podcast to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report, the universities and science minister said that the sector had to “step up to the mark” on the issue.
“Robbins worried about the value and status of teaching relative to research, and I do think there is still a challenge for the sector here,” he said. “Universities have to step up to the mark by ensuring that they maintain a high-quality teaching experience.”
Mr Willetts’ comments came after he revealed in a pamphlet that the government is to consult on expanding Key Information Set data to give students more details about how courses are taught.
Writing in Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education, published by the Social Market Foundation thinktank on 21 October, Mr Willetts says that asking institutions to “provide a breakdown of the average number of discussion classes for each course – broken down as Robbins suggests into tutorials, small seminars and large seminars”, would allow students and parents to judge courses by “the sort of teaching they value”.
“The cost of this could be low, given that institutions collect this sort of data for timetables,” he writes. “And it would make good teaching visible, providing a powerful incentive for institutions to continue to improve.”
The minister also writes that the number of English students attending UK universities could reach 460,000 by 2035.
He told THE that he was of the opinion that expansion in the numbers attending university was a good thing, and referred to the warnings issued at the time of the 1963 Robbins report.
“The main sceptical argument is the famous Kingsley Amis proposition…‘More will mean worse’, the fear that somehow more people getting in means that standards decline. I think there is very strong evidence that in the past 50 years those fears proved to be misplaced,” he said.
Mr Willetts added that data on graduate earnings suggested that employers still valued degrees despite the expansion. “If you look at the ‘graduate premium’, the fact is that even as the number of graduates has increased there’s been no reduction in the extra earnings you get as a result of being a graduate.”