The history of efforts to improve university teaching

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In the history of the western university, the idea of teaching as a discrete activity is a recent one, and consensus as to what teaching is and how this should be done has still not entirely been reached.

This, in an age of accountability and measurement, is a profoundly unfashionable idea. But it is a thread that runs from Cardinal Newman, through innumerable discourses on the links between research and teaching, up to the present day and principled opposition to the teaching excellence framework on the grounds that none of the three words are clearly defined or understood.

The story of teaching quality enhancement can be seen as the story of the replacement – to burlesque Stefan Collini – of the idea of a community with the idea of commerce. This has happened slowly and insidiously, and with culpability on all sides. It is surely right that institutions are accountable for public funds, and it is surely proper that funding is allocated with a purpose in mind. And the parallel has constantly been drawn with research – with a need to “balance” research and teaching paramount.

There have been four “great” reports into the state of higher education in Britain – any wonk with a sense of history can reel off Barlow (1946), Robbins (1963), Dearing (1997) and Browne (2010). Each prefigured a large expansion of the higher education system. But what did they say about teaching?

Barlow, Robbins and Hale – 1945-64

Atlee’s reforming government of 1945 were concerned with the rebuilding of a nation shattered by war and still feeling the privations of enforced austerity. Barlow’s recommendation, building on Butler’s expansion of secondary education, was to double the number of graduates via a vast expansion of university places, backed by a willing Exchequer. But he found space to caution that:

[W]e are opposed to any attempt to increase the student population by adding substantial additional teaching responsibility to the individual members of a faculty. Generally speaking, indeed, the load on the teachers of science is already too great and their opportunity for research far too small. In our opinion, it is essential that the average teacher should have more and not less opportunity for his own research than he has had in the past.”

Barlow’s conceptualisation of what undergraduate teaching was and what it did was weak. He knew it produced scientists (and could hazard a guess at how many years was needed to do so), and he was certain that research was essential to support it. There was no model of what teaching was before massification, or what it would need to consist of afterwards.

Feast forward to the 1960s, and Robbins, in contrast, was keen to peer inside the lecture theatre. He was “in favour of diversity and believe that in a well organised course of instruction different types of teaching should be combined” – dubious of the value of lectures, keen to emphasise prompt feedback for assessment, and leery of the tutorial panacea. His comment on intensive instruction is particularly peculiar: “for the great majority of students we believe it to be too exacting”.

Much of the heavy lifting was left to the contemporaneous Hale report on ‘University Teaching Methods’ (1964), a report that could be fairly argued to contain the first National Student Survey. Hale presciently identified that:

The students who flock to the universities today are more diversified than in the past, and the careers to which they aspire are more varied, while at the same time their motives in seeking a university degree are increasingly vocational. These developments have presented a formidable challenge to university teachers who aim at teaching their subjects in such a way that they not only serve as a basis of professional skill but also stimulate and broaden the mind

These new students would not flourish within Newman’s miasma of scholarship. And NUS at the time felt that what was offered to such students – the increasingly compulsory lecture – was a poor quality experience. Hale noted the paucity of research into better methods of university teaching, advocating for “a policy of well-directed experiment in university teaching” organised on an “inter-university basis”. A “body to promote and steer a concerted programme of experiment”, with the ability to “make or recommend grants for experiments in the methods and organisation of university teaching”. Finally the “results of experiments should be published in such a way as to reach all those for whose teaching the results might be significant”. These recommendations age well – there is perhaps still a need for them today.

Dearing – 1997-2010

Dearing’s fourteenth recommendation, in 1997, brought that body into being. The Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE) was charged:

“to accredit programmes of training for higher education teachers; to commission research and development in learning and teaching practices; and to stimulate innovation.”

The problems Dearing described were an almost exact repeat of those enumerated by Robbins and Hale: that the lecture was still the dominant experience of the majority of students. However, whilst NUS’s response to Hale in 1964 called for the substitution of lectures with reading materials, by 1997 this trend was seen as a challenge. NUS complained that “the pattern of learning has been changing, with an increasing proportion of time spent outside the classroom in independent study”, a methodology for which students were ill-prepared.

Since 1992 the sector had rapidly expanded in size, with more students attending more universities than ever before, further expansion meant understanding a new student reality, and thinking once again about teaching. Such thinking was met with a very modern response: a smörgåsbord of new bodies and initiatives with confusing acronyms. 

Dearing acknowledged, however, the small number of initiatives supporting teaching quality that had sprung up in the previous decade – most fulsomely noting the implications of the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) and Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP) for a new, technology-driven, future for university teaching.

Mentioned in passing, the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) allowed faculties and departments to respond to criticisms levied at them during the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) process. Though seldom discussed today, FDTL was a multi-year, five-phase suite of projects that supported targeted experimentation. It was latterly rolled into the broader Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF), an umbrella funding envelope that supported the experimentation that Hale called for at an institutional (funding against learning and teaching strategies), subject (FDTL, and the Learning and Teaching Support Network which grew from CTI to form subject centres) and individual (National Teaching Fellowship Scheme) level.

The latter came from the 2003 White Paper ‘The Future of Higher Education’, which also provided for the most notorious of noughties teaching initiatives, Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The CETL programme was the first serious attempt to redress the imbalance between research and teaching that Dearing had identified. CETLs “rebalance[ed] funding so that new resources come into the sector not only through research and student numbers, but through strength in teaching”, and at a total value of £315million were designed to attract institutional attention.

In parallel, the Higher Education Academy drew together the ILTHE, LTSN and other centralised TQEF functions in an attempt to simplify what was becoming a very crowded space. The new plurality of funding streams primarily existed to support teacher driven change. Even at a subject and institutional level the aim was to reach out to academic staff to encourage teaching innovation. Many careers were built on the back of this funding, often providing multiple sources for the same work. There was pushback from some academics, who felt their professionalism challenged by what was sometimes seen as facile induction courses and quasi-academic education research. And the establishment of professional teaching standards on behalf of the sector by the HEA, alongside the rise of the National Student Survey, raised eyebrows as elements of compulsion became visible.

Browne and Willetts – 2010-15

As noughties optimism gave way to the privations of austerity, policymakers might be excused for looking back to Barlow and his instrumentalist economic rationale for expanding of higher education. Browne (2010), as per Lord Mandelson’s remit, was focused more on the price of higher education than the value of it, and it is telling that the first consideration of teaching quality concerns a link to funding. The report dismisses the idea, thus:

“One option is to link funding to a measure of quality. However, there is no measure that we have seen that could function effectively across the whole range of institutions and courses [,and] even if an appropriate measure could be found, it would create a new administrative burden. Institutions might focus on the measurement process rather than on their students.”

Students were given the responsibility of driving up teaching quality in their choices of course and institution. Information on a number of aspects of study was to be provided, and those that students found important would lead – via market forces – to greater demand and the ability to set higher prices for tuition. This effect would be amplified by an empowering of the student as consumer, demanding value for what would be seen as ‘their’ money.

We should note in passing the presence of new OfS chair Michael Barber on the Browne review panel. Barber’s later interest in efficacy and learning gain at Pearson should be seen as a continuation of this belief that better information supports a more efficient market.

This efficiency did not happen, and Jo Johnson’s more recent interventions have primarily been focused on repairing this market, which completely failed to work as expected. In part, Browne’s model was frustrated by the political necessity of a fee cap set at £9,000.

The other components of the government response to Browne were detailed in the 2011 White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’. Here, the use of the student as consumer to drive excellence met the historic tension between teaching and research. A data driven response to the age old question of quality enhancement suggests that even if it is felt that there should be a “renewed focus on high-quality teaching in universities so that it has the same prestige as research” this would be achieved not by supporting the efforts of academics but by “empower[ing] prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses”.

Even the recognition that certain teaching methods are associated with positive survey responses (“What [high NSS-scoring institutions] share, in very different ways, is a commitment to close contact with students and focus on academic feedback”) does not lead to recommendations on the best way to achieve this close contact, or even (pace Hale and Dearing) for research into what it is that is happening here. The market, and the price as the conveyer of a myriad of information and assumptions, was intended to be the sole driver of teaching quality.

Now read on…

But four years on from ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, new minister Jo Johnson accused universities of “lamentable” teaching quality. His remedy? The Teaching Excellence Framework. As things stand, TEF looks no more likely to be less ephemeral than the historical examples listed above. But we’ve only one inconclusive run so far, there is a legally required review pending, and the explicit link to fee levels has been pushed back to 2020.

Can TEF succeed in capturing what many feel is the ‘un-capturable’ essence of teaching quality? Or with learning gain and learner analytics poised to make learning measurable, could it mark the moment at which universities become genuinely responsive to students’ learning needs?

Wonkhe has published more than 100 articles on every aspect of the TEF, a sustained period of analysis that culminated on election day with our ‘Incredible Machine’ conference in London. The room has long since filled up, but we have shared the highlights from the day on our live blog and on social media. With legislation on the statute book and results from phase 2 imminent, it may feel like TEF is here to stay. But in terms of meaning and value – and as in Newman’s time – there is a lot left to be argued about.

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