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Reflections on Teaching in Higher Education

"It isn't easy being a cop!" Of course not, as one is "...not dealing with dumb two-bit trigger-pumping morons with low hairlines, little piggy eyes and no conversation, we're a couple of intelligent caring guys that you'd probably quite like if you met us socially!"1 Nor is it easy, really, being a lecturer, at least not one concerned about teaching quality, who at the same time tries to maintain and develop what at least has the potential to remotely resemble a career (the 'morons with low hairlines' proviso applies here as well).

Lecturers are facing an increasing serious conflict between rising teaching/administrative burdens and a sector obsessed with research ratings. Ideally, teachers provide high quality education to students; at least that is what students are being led to believe when they enrol. The same students increasingly see lecturers as service providers, responsible for delivering a product for which they (meaning their parents, or the taxpayer, for the most part) have paid for, reacting with irate indignation if the delivered product, in the form of grades, is not up to the level they had expected. Disregarding the lethargic class attendance by a large section of the student body and the less than stellar enthusiasm for reading and revision, the lecturer gets the blame for poor results. There might be a feasibly and relatively straightforward way out of this problem, if indeed there is one. Ever widening participation and a highly diverse student body, taught in increasingly large classes, require more attention and effort by a teacher, and resources by the university. This may also provide a need to improve teaching skills to become effective teachers. So, allow more time for students (and/or hire more academic staff), run smaller classes, and train teachers.

At the same time, however, lecturers are typically reminded by faculty and the university about perceived quantitative inadequacies in their research output (ditto re research funding). For the most part, this ignores the fact that research is a highly dynamic process and that getting work published is time consuming, less than predictable, and can hardly be planned with the precision that is assumed by faculty when lecturers submit their obligatory probation agreement or during promotion assessments. A particular article sometimes simply does not happen, perhaps because a crucial joint author drops out, or it has its research objective changed, or needs to be resubmitted to a different journal. This can easily delay publication (if this is at all still possible) by one or two years, or more, well outside any bureaucratically set frameworks. Nevertheless, the academic gets blamed for what are perceived to be shortcomings in academic output and faces the repercussions.

There is a potential conflict at work between delivering high quality teaching to ever larger classes and producing international quality publications. To do each right, each takes time and effort, research, reflection, preparation, revision, updating, and so on. Certainly, providing quality teaching and colourful learning outcomes is stated in bright letters in the prospectus of any university, but what does this amount to in reality? Good luck to those academics who try to take lecturing seriously, devote much of their office time preparing lectures and tutorials, enhancing the learning experience of students, engaging with the student body to allow for deep learning, providing a high quality learning environment, and actually trying to implement the standard stated learning and teaching strategy of most institutions of higher education.

Unfortunately, taking teaching this seriously can be suicidal for an academic career. The strong emphasis on the RAE can be a bar to promotion to scholars who wish to maintain an active interest in teaching quality. This is not limited to new lecturers. Experienced long time lectures feel the heat too. Just ask Professor Jenkins, formerly of Oxford Brookes University. A renowned scholar of international repute and a known expert on the relationship between teaching and research, who dedicated a career to improving teaching practice, Professor Jenkins failed to secure promotion to a high-level professorship, at least partially as a result of his focus on developing teaching.

This possible divergence between the theory and practice of teaching with respect to rewards gained for doing this goes against the stated aims of teacher development emphasised by universities, in particular for new academic staff. Let's recall the objectives (or 'learning outcomes') of the Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PGCTHE), a key instrument in the training of new lecturers. Among other aims, the PGCTHE is designed to:

  • Allow the competent use of a wide repertoire of teaching and assessment methods participants
  • Support lecturers in the teaching problems they face
  • Increase an understanding of teaching and learning processes
  • Help lecturers make appropriate and informed decisions about course design and the choice of teaching' learning and assessment methods
  • To foster the habit of reflective teaching and of professionalism in evaluating and improving teaching

And so on. While admirable in theory, teaching reality, and by implication the learning experience of students, tells a different story. Career advancement is based too rigidly on research output and teachers highly involved in developing their teaching skills and translating these into classroom practice may be looked down upon and not be promoted as rapidly as colleagues who concentrate their efforts on publications. Most teachers in higher education are frequently overworked, trying to manage people, timetables, multiple deadlines, administrative duties, publications, conferences, career objectives, oh, and where possibly lead a life, take care of their family, and if they are really lucky, make enough to (barely) pay off the mortgage.

The alternative to this is to leave the UK academic sector completely, by a change in career or by leaving for countries where the teaching load is lower, pay higher, and where good publications are rewarded by promotion. This is a path take by many academics. Surely, such departures cannot be in the interest of maintaining UK academic standards. Nor do relatively high turnover rates of academic staff foster the maintenance of academic continuity or the creation of a critical mass of academic excellence in departments. To hire new PhDs as replacements for experienced staff, while certainly a cheap option, will do little to fix the damage caused by the above-noted conflicting institutional goals.

The stark reality in today's academe in the UK is that only publications matter. "Publish or perish" is the motto and it cannot be taken too seriously by lecturers who want to keep their job, wish to get promoted, and have an outside chance of moving to a higher ranked university during their career. The research imperative naturally drives academics towards the path of survival, largely preventing them from concentrating on teaching, what should, arguably, be at the heart of higher education. The main problem is that teaching is and will remain undervalued as long as institutions strictly follow the RAE. What universities need to realize is that this has a potentially devastating effect on the quality of teaching offered to students.

1Lines taken from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

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