Out of the ivory tower


For too long, higher education has been trapped in a paradigm of success which places undue emphasis on research and relegates teaching to little more than an afterthought. Both for universities competing at a national level in the league tables, as well as for academics competing within an insti- tution, a focus on research is currently the path to the top. And students are losing out. The first solution is simple: we need to find better ways of measuring teaching quality across the UK, so that students can make an informed choice when choosing where to study. One obvious measure of teaching quality is to measure outcomes, by trying to establish how much value a teacher has added to you over the course of your interaction. This is already done at primary and secondary school levels and allows for far more accurate league tables.

However, measuring outcomes at the university level is hampered by the absence of standardised testing. We can’t just simply measure teaching quality based on the difference between A-levels and degree classification because different institutions are more or less generous with their grades. Different degrees are not only different in classification but in content too. Try to standardise degree classifications and you have your work cut out. Try to standardise degree content and you face an unwinnable battle because higher education is subjective: you will never get two economists to agree what should constitute a degree in economics.

Given the difficulties in measuring outcomes, many have looked to the quantity, timeliness and quality of feedback as an indicator of teaching experience. Students can have famous lecturers and small classes, but if their work isn’t being marked, their learning is limited. Though this is a far from perfect measure, it is a decisive improvement on the ambiguous ‘student surveys’ currently used by universities and the league tables. 

The second solution is harder: we need to reconstruct the incentive structure in academia so that it is conducive to good teaching. At the moment, it is publish or perish for academics at most British universities, where promotion and reputation is based entirely on your research. Should an academic choose to dedicate their career to good teaching, they must make a vast sacrifice of both income and prestige unacceptable to most. Furthermore, while universities often have elaborate frameworks and support networks for research, nothing similar exists for teaching. Teaching matters. When the new cohort arrives later this year, many will be spending over £9,000 for their education. With the increase in tuition fees, the role of teaching will have to be recognised by institutions because students, over time, will be more discriminating about where to go. Teaching in higher education is not a lost art, but regard for it is a lost tradition. Students need to stand up for their education and demand a change.


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