Teaching awards are for losers

Handing out glitzy prizes is a cheaper way of shoring up morale than paying people better, says Bruce Macfarlane

October 27, 2022
Unhappy child holding a winners cup to illustrate Teaching awards are  for losers, not winners
Source: Getty

Academic CVs commonly include a section listing prizes and awards. At the stellar end of the spectrum are prestigious fellowships and international research prizes – culminating in the Nobels. Others get recognition from academic societies for writing an outstanding paper or book. But even for the mere mortals there is now a plentiful supply of institutional gongs to scrap for – and glitzy award ceremonies and dinners to attend to receive them.

The institutional awards culture arose in the US but is now an international phenomenon. When I worked at a UK Russell Group university a few years ago, I attended one such event. The vice-chancellor set the triumphal tone for the evening by declaring, “This is our Oscars!” His pronouncement was met with enthusiastic whoops, hollers and flashing lights. I then sat through a four-hour marathon consisting of a seemingly endless procession of suitably grateful winners making heartfelt tributes, punctuated by lengthy musical interludes. Evidently the desire for some form of public recognition can make even the most hardened academic go weak at the knees and tearful in the eye.

Institutions award prizes for the best research “output”, the most salient social impact, distinguished institutional service, and many more achievements besides. But the bulk of the awards are given for “excellent”, “inspirational”, “caring” or “collaborative” teaching. The trouble is that, as the American historian Jacques Barzun drily commented in his 1968 book The American University: How it Runs, Where it is Going, “the aroma of the consolation prize clings to these distinctions”. As a result, they degrade the status of teaching.

Why do universities offer so many of these awards? One obvious reason is that it is a promotional strategy, allowing universities to claim they recognise excellent teaching. But this is a smokescreen that hides an uncomfortable truth. Bluntly, handing out awards is a cheaper way of shoring up morale than paying people better.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favour of great university teaching. What grates is this patronising, tokenistic awards culture with all its superficial razzmatazz. The hypocrisy of it all is exposed by the fact that academics who are initially flattered by winning an award end up bitter and hurt when they are subsequently turned down for promotion.

If universities were really committed to excellence in teaching, they would not need to have any teaching awards for it – as was the case only a few generations ago, when teaching was more or less the only thing that most universities were doing. But research ambitions took over in the 1980s and as “university teachers” were retitled as “academics”, the status of teaching went into freefall.

By the late 1990s, Ron Dearing, in his report on UK higher education, saw there was a problem. He rightly pointed out that it was necessary to elevate the standing of university teaching. Yet 25 years on, and despite all the prizes and other initiatives, the standing of teaching in higher education continues to decline, according to international survey data about the academic profession. The creation of “teaching track” staff has only accelerated the process still further, opening up a widening gap between the haves (grants, promotions, status) and have-nots. 

When I was an educational developer during the 2000s, I coached colleagues to apply for and sometimes win university and UK-wide teaching awards. But I vividly remember one head of department asking me not to encourage one young academic to get too involved with the teaching and learning scene, warning me it would only damage his career. At the time, I largely ignored this injunction but subsequently came to realise its essential, if sad, truth.

When I started working as a regular academic again in 2010, at a research-intensive university, I made the decision that I would never apply for a teaching award. This was not – without wishing to sound immodest – because I did not think I was a good teacher. I just did not want to be labelled a good teacher because getting typecast represents just as much of a career-limiting risk for academics as for actors – especially if you are typecast as a teacher. Accordingly, when I was told I had come second in a popularity poll for a teaching award voted for by students, I felt relief rather than disappointment.

Of course we should take pride in our teaching. We should listen to feedback from our students and try to get better at it. And everyone likes a pat on the back if they do something well. But the truth is that the real prizes lie in research, and it makes more career sense to be pigeonholed as a contender for those.

Universities say they reward good teaching, but their actions largely undermine this rhetoric. Sadly, this means that teaching prizes are not for the winners but for the losers in academic life.

Bruce Macfarlane is chair professor of educational leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong. He worked as an educational developer at three UK universities between 2000 and 2010.

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Reader's comments (4)

Having recently completed a reading of Bruce's -Freedom to Learn: The Threat to Student Academic Freedom and Why it Needs to be Reclaimed, (a must read for any academics in HE) I was drawn to his article. Suffice to say that I have won several teaching awards including Most innovative University Teacher (2018) within my own institution. They had no impact on my first attempt seeking proportion from Teaching Fellow to Senior Teaching Fellow. More troublesome, nobody has ever asked what I did to win! Whilst I don't feel like a loser there remains a disparity of esteem and reward in higher education for different job roles. Money talks!
It's time the HE sector was honest with itself: the majority of the sector is unqualified to teach and assess students (including the concept of "external examiners"). Teaching is generally seen as secondary to research. Most "quality" enhancements tend to be driven by professional services in an attempt to curb this bizarre practice without actually addressing it. Until initial teacher training is introduced as standard, attempts to enhance quality is a relatively fruitless exercise. HEA - while it has its merits - is not a substitute for teacher training. Focus on quality and experience is an ever important byproduct of the marketisation of HE - it's time HE caught up with this and reformed learning and teaching. This includes raising the status of teaching as a whole.
What a self-mockery. About US from Hong Kong? Not all awards are alike. not all universities are alike. Educational Leadership is neither a discipline or a field. What is an "educational developer"--a highway or an ivory tower builder? I for one can't follow the repetitive logical and rhetorical contradictions that permeate his....
I take issue with dannywhite82 regarding "teaching" in higher education. When I was a student, the word never really cropped up and it was my job as a student to teach myself (as has been the case since I was 16). Unfortunately, mass expansion has killed this concept but the answer is not to make all of us undergo teacher training. If I had wanted that, I would have followed my father and become a school teacher!


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