How do we balance the Humboldtian equation?

What constitutes truly excellent teaching, and its oft-neglected relationship with research, are among the most urgent concerns in higher education

October 18, 2018
Humboldt
Source: Alamy

To say that the future of the lecture is a life-and-death issue would be overstating things, but it is a surprisingly contentious one.

That much was clear at the THE Teaching Excellence Summit at the University of Glasgow this summer, when a difference of opinion on its value provoked a feisty exchange between Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and Glasgow’s vice-principal James Conroy.

Wieman, a Stanford University physicist, argued that the evidence clearly showed that “active learning” techniques always deliver better outcomes than lecturing. This is true even when the former is average and the latter excellent, he claimed.

Conroy vehemently disagreed, arguing that there was a “religious zeal” among those who sought to kill off the lecture.

“Students need tomorrow what they needed yesterday – the capacity to think, reflect, engage and turn things upside down,” he said. The lecture helps them to do all those things.

That this debate is being argued with such feeling is reassuring at a time when the question of what truly excellent teaching looks like is among the most urgent in higher education.

Universities are facing up to the fact that not only has teaching too often been neglected but that it will have to deliver on an increasingly industrial scale in the future.

According to the World Data Lab in Austria, 3.6 billion people can now be categorised as middle class, with the number forecast to increase to 5.3 billion by 2030.

It does not take a genius to work out what this means for ongoing growth in demand for university study – and the need for teaching models rather more scalable than the Oxbridge tutorial system.

Digital innovation will play a significant role in evolving pedagogical approaches in the years ahead. But it is teachers who teach, not virtual learning platforms, so the basic questions remain the same – what does the best teaching look like, and how can we encourage more of it?

In our cover story this week, we ask the experts: eight experienced lecturers who share what has and has not worked for them.

Stepping back from the lecture to consider the wider state of teaching, it is worth returning to a theme of the recent THE World Academic Summit, when Brian Schmidt, another Nobel prizewinner (and vice-chancellor of the Australian National University) sounded the alarm about the future of research-informed teaching.

Splitting teaching from research might be a way to scale up provision of higher education, he said, but it would be “dangerous and unsustainable” since, within a single generation, students would be instructed by teachers who had never had any contact with research.

At the same event, Suzanne Fortier, vice-chancellor of McGill University, warned that insatiable demand from industry for experts in areas such as artificial intelligence posed a similar risk, because if all the research stars left there would be no one left to teach the next generation.

These warnings are a reminder that universities are complex ecosystems, in which vital balance can be taken for granted until it is knocked out of whack.

It was good to hear the case for the Humboldtian ideal made so forcefully, because often universities have been too feeble in making the case for research-informed teaching.

Why, for example, has the financial contribution made by students not been cast as “university fees” rather than “tuition fees”?

Have universities made a critical mistake in not being open about the cross-subsidy that exists, and why it is an appropriate use of a student’s precious investment in their education?

The evidence suggests that they have.

In the UK’s annual Hepi/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey, students were asked what they value most: teachers with teaching qualifications, industry experience, or who are active researchers. The last of these came bottom of the list, even among students at the Russell Group of research-intensive institutions.

It would be a mistake to discount what students say they want, whatever we feel about such a line of questioning.

If the value of the teaching-research nexus isn’t clear to them, the Humboldtian tradition really is at risk. Never mind the death of the lecture, that could mean the death of the university as we know it.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Humboldt’s equilibrium

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