A jury of their peers

Academics seeking promotion should be assessed for quality of teaching as well as research, argues Quintin McKellar

May 24, 2012

The Humboldtian view of university academics contributing to both teaching and research has underpinned the ethos of UK universities for two centuries. Although the evidence for the contribution of research activity to teaching excellence is thin, what exists is largely positive - and, indeed, it is logical to imagine that an active researcher might instil a spirit of enquiry and critical thinking into their students.

However, a number of developments in the higher education sector have created a tension in the system, to some extent polarising teaching and research. First, the growth of student numbers - and therefore educational activity - in the academy has outstripped the growth of research funding and activity. Second, we have seen new entrants to the sector: higher education institutions with little research legacy.

The educational reforms currently unfolding will arguably increase the tension between research and teaching, and further polarise academic activity as universities differentiate themselves by mission and price. These changes will add further strain to an unspoken reality: that promotion in academia is weighted heavily in favour of those who demonstrate research excellence, particularly at the levels of readership and professorship.

Most universities consider teaching to be a factor in promotion, but there is much debate about how to go about it. There is a school of thought that promotion at senior levels requires a research contribution - and in some cases those apparently being promoted for teaching excellence are expected to have made substantive contributions to pedagogical advancement, which, if evidence-based, is in truth research. Adding to the complication is the notion of "scholarship", which might be comprehended as the novel interpretation or critical assessment of knowledge that has already been created. However, it seems likely that most in the academy would agree that those who do not undertake original research should at least be scholarly in their teaching.

If we accept that for some universities promotion to professorship could be conferred on the basis of excellence in teaching, we encounter a substantive hurdle: that of objective assessment. Although the heat of the debate in the sector around research assessment would suggest otherwise, research can be effectively assessed, acknowledging that the process does embrace peer review and is at least partly subjective.

When it comes to assessing teaching, however, the options are limited. Those designing courses and leading modules no doubt have a claim to promotion, but one that is based on administrative activity as much as teaching excellence. Student feedback may be the mantra of a political doctrine that, in the words of the higher education White Paper, puts the "student at the heart of the system", but is it appropriate? Feedback certainly has a role to play and should be considered, but can students who have little previous experience of university teaching and few reliable benchmarks make a balanced judgement?

Owing to these difficulties, for all its frailties - and it has many - peer review must be embraced by the academy if we are to redress the balance and reward good teaching by promotion at senior levels. Many universities already have peer-review processes in place, often for new recruits or novice lecturers. Since the recent entrant into the academy is much more likely to have undertaken robust educational training, which in itself is likely to have involved peer assessment, other cohorts might benefit equally from it.

In my view, peer review should be compulsory for those wishing to be promoted on the basis of their teaching excellence. Universal peer review undoubtedly carries substantial resource implications and its opponents will raise objections over issues such as peer competence and potential partiality, but that is more likely to be based on fear of exposure than on principled opposition. Peer review should be for all - even, perhaps, starting with the vice-chancellor or pro vice-chancellor for teaching.

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