How to drive quality teaching

By Craig Mahoney –

The perennial discussion about what constitutes quality in higher education often resides in a debate about teaching. This has been the case recently across the UK and particularly in England, resulting from proposals on future fees and student finance in England.

Teaching is not the be-all and end-all of higher education but it does make the single biggest contribution to the student learning experience and student success. In 2010, the Higher Education Academy (HEA) published a report on the ‘dimensions of quality’ in higher education by Professor Graham Gibbs.[1] This meta-analysis examined factors that make up a high quality learning experience for students in higher education. Gibbs found that process variables – the way institutions use their resources – make the biggest difference to educational outcomes. He picks out class size, the level of student effort and engagement, who does the teaching, and quality of feedback to students on their work as the significant and valid process indicators.

At the HEA a major concern in this report is on the third of these points – who does the teaching. At present there are very few barriers to becoming a teacher in higher education. Higher education teaching/lecturing is one of very few professions in which people can work with no requirement to have any qualification or licence to practice – although increasingly universities do require staff, new to teaching, to be trained. Students go to university to learn, and good teaching is integral to effective learning. But at present there is no formal requirement that those who teach students in higher education should hold a teaching qualification or be qualified to teach.

I have long argued that staff who have undertaken training and professional development in teaching in higher education are better equipped to support and inspire their students. They also have greater self awareness of the subtle factors impacting the learning environment such as psychology, philosophy and sociology of learning. Professional development leading to professional recognition provides a benchmark for individuals and for institutions, and more importantly gives the general population and students themselves confidence that they are being supported by qualified, capable and competent professionals. My experience is that individuals who are qualified are better prepared, more knowledgeable and have a better grasp on the demands from teaching to provide a quality teaching experience that students do, and increasingly will, expect. The research evidence in this area is limited for higher education though considerable evidence exists for the positive impact on student learning from qualified teachers in secondary education.

This topic continues to provoke strong reactions in which Institutions argue, rightly so, that they must have the autonomy to manage and develop their staff for their own institutional circumstances. The UK Professional Standards Framework, (UKPSF) provides a UK-wide set of descriptors, developed with the higher education sector, against which institutions can benchmark their approaches to the professional development of staff. It is managed by the HEA on behalf of the sector, and offers universities and colleges criteria which support the initial and continuing professional development for staff who teach and support student learning. Academics can show how their teaching is informed by research and by professional practice. It is a flexible framework that is adaptable to the needs of the individual and of the institution. The framework is unique and is gaining increased recognition internationally.

Many institutions use the UKPSF and seek external validation of their approaches to professional development against the framework. The HEA alone accredits 378 programmes in 140 higher education institutions across the UK. The UKPSF is not, and was never intended to be, mandatory. There are other routes to accreditation too, which the HEA welcomes.

Clearly, provision varies across the sector in terms of the length, content and credit rating of programmes, as well as their alignment against the UKSPF. Also not all institutions require academic staff who are new to teaching to undertake a Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCE) or equivalent. Even where institutions have a formal requirement, it may not always be enforced. Moreover, it is not uncommon for research activity and associated outcomes to be prioritised ahead of the development of knowledge and pedagogy related to teaching.

In November 2010, the HEA launched a review of the UKPSF in consultation with the higher education sector. The HEA found broad general support for the principle that those who teach in higher education should be appropriately qualified. What is ripe for debate is how this might operate in practice. The HEA does not espouse a one size fits all approach and accepts concerns in the sector that acknowledging mission differences, diversity of provision and institutional autonomy are crucial in reaching agreement on how any revised framework should operate. Nevertheless, the UKPSF, with its origins and ownership in the sector, has the potential to be a key indicator of UK higher education’s ongoing commitment to teaching and supporting learning, as well as giving confidence that minimum threshold standards have been met by academic staff.

The second part of the debate on higher education teaching relates to the manner in which teaching can be properly recognised in institutional reward and promotions policies. The dominance of research over teaching may appear endemic both in the culture of many universities and in formal processes, like academic promotion policies. In 2008, a collaborative project by the HEA and Professor Annette Cashmore at the University of Leicester’s GENIE Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, found that despite the vital role that teaching plays in a student’s experience of university, research performance remains more central in most university promotion policies for academics.[2]

In reviewing the UKPSF and in order to stimulate sector-wide debate, the HEA put forward potential guidelines that higher education institutions might consider when developing their promotions criteria based on teaching. While individual organisations emphasised the need for institutional autonomy, the presentation of potential indicators was welcomed. There is general agreement that support in this area is best provided though the sharing of good practice and the provision of supportive guidance material.

In the future higher education teaching qualifications need to be reviewed as part of a package of measures that help raise the status of teaching – although this may seem a hugely difficult task at a time when funding for teaching, across the UK, is under review. However, with 2.4 million students enrolled in UK higher education, the work that lecturers put in to supporting students’ learning is something that all of us must take more seriously and respond to appropriately as expectations from existing and future student groups rise. This is the best way of ensuring that quality is improved across higher education in the future.

Professor Craig Mahoney is Chief Executive of The Higher Education Academy, is a Chartered Psychologist and was past Chair of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES).

The Higher Education Academy supports the sector in providing the best possible learning experience for all students.

[1] http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/news/detail/dimensions_of_quality_report [Accessed 15.04.11]

[2] http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/news/detail/2009/rewardandrecongition2 [Accessed 15.04.11]

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