Much Teaching at University is Poor

A narrative is taking shape.  In September Jo Johnson confirmed that the Teaching Excellence Framework is designed to tackle poor teaching: He said:

This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.

His evidence?  It was two-fold.  Firstly there was a quote from a book, from the distinguished pairing of Palfreyman and Tapper – he quoted a “disengagement contract”:

This goes along the lines of ‘I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees’.

Except, as Hugh Jones quickly pointed out – this section was about US higher education.  Thankfully we had a second source: the minister had spoken to a worried parent.

But, lack of evidence need not deter Government.  Helpfully Sir Antony Seldon is trying to attract some attention to the start of his term at Buckingham University. Today he confirmed to the Times that it was a ‘fact’ that ‘much teaching at university is poor’ and wouldn’t pass an Ofsted inspection.  The evidence for this is his ‘talking to students who go there’.  There may be many differences between teaching at school and university, but imagine that we’d expect HE teaching to do pretty well at the first of Ofsted’s criteria for outstanding teaching:

Teachers demonstrate deep knowledge and understanding of the subjects they teach. They use questioning highly effectively and demonstrate understanding of the ways pupils think about subject content. They identify pupils’ common misconceptions and act to ensure they are corrected.

If Johnson’s solution is the TEF, then Seldon’s solution is teacher training.  The article perhaps undersells how far we’ve come as a sector since Dearing in 1997, but Buckingham will apparently offer a full-time PGCert in HE teaching (a Teaching Excellence Qualification)- as a better option than the part-time versions offered by universities to their new staff.  Here his assumptions that universities should copy schools goes a bit awry.  There are lots of routes into teaching in universities – but the most common now is through a research degree (with teaching featuring) into a job (hopefully fairly soon after) with a PGCert as part of the first stage.  Different universities will have different rules as to how compulsory these are; but this model seems a better bet than a newly minted PhD taking a stand-alone course (with teaching practice?) and then applying for a job. What happens to their research in that year isn’t clear either.  Maybe there are qualified people with access to a year’s worth of maintenance and the ability to pay fees who want to become university teachers – but it seems a very risky route.

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