Step up and join the band

The definition of teaching quality may be tangled up, but it’s in everyone’s interest to find a satisfactory measure

October 8, 2015
Bob Dylan singing live on stage

It is a seminal moment in modern music: Bob Dylan finished his acoustic set during the infamous “Albert Hall” gig of 1966 and picked up an electric guitar. As he tuned up for a rendition of Like a Rolling Stone, a shout rang out from the crowd: “Judas.”

“I don’t believe you,” Dylan drawled into the microphone. Turning to his band, his instruction was just audible: “Play it fucking loud.” They duly obliged, and a moment of music history was made.

A minor footnote to all this is that the concert did not, in fact, take place at the Albert Hall, but at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, which also hosted such bands as the Sex Pistols in its heyday.

It is now a Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, and was the venue for a fringe debate at the Conservative Party Conference last week (yes, Sid Vicious must be turning in his grave).

Sitting in the venue it was hard to evoke much feeling for the rock’n’roll history. But it did occur to me that the angst from Dylan’s audience, who railed against the winds of change, resonated at least a little with the topic being debated in higher education 50 years later.

The fringe was about the drive to measure (and thus improve, the argument goes) teaching quality in universities – to hold lecturers’ and universities’ feet to the fire and force them to give it something at least approaching parity of esteem with research.

It’s the centrepiece of current Tory higher education policy, but in truth it’s a recurring theme around the world.

At the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in Melbourne last week, Dirk Van Damme, of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Directorate for Education and Skills, noted that 31 per cent of expenditure in higher education now comes from private sources, while concern about the “quality of output” is rising.

Between these inputs and outputs is a “black box”, he said, arguing that sound metrics on teaching and learning are vital to demonstrate value for money and to reward high performance (as well as to compensate for an over-reliance on research and reputation metrics).

The tricky bit is coming up with measures that are not self-defeating and that will answer a deceptively simple question: what is teaching excellence?

One has only to read our feature this week on academics’ personal strategies for enthusing and inspiring their trickier students to know that when asked to define teaching excellence, most of us would reach for anecdote and experience over satisfaction surveys and measures of “value added”.

As one vice-chancellor put it to me, it’s a bit like the US Supreme Court’s struggle to define obscene material in the 1960s – the justice in the case famously remarked: “I know it when I see it.”

We know great teaching when we see it, and the challenge for the teaching excellence framework and its ilk is to capture that in a way that commands the respect of both academics and students.

But Van Damme is right about the demand for greater accountability, and achieving it will benefit not only students but all who believe that universities are about more than just research. Better to help develop a system that works than to stick heads in the sand, or heckle from the back of the hall.

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