To survive – and to thrive – academics have to publish research and bring in research income; this has been their route to promotion and career progression. The phrase “publish or perish” is well known in academic circles, and for good reason. Having a strong reputation for research makes you an academic that universities want, and teaching ability beyond a basic quality threshold is perhaps assumed rather than required.
If academics are not given opportunities to measure and develop their teaching skills, and are not rewarded for those skills, what is the impetus for them to reach a benchmark of good teaching, let alone improve? Students deserve to be taught by academics with a proven ability to teach, not only a good research background. The research-biased culture does us no favours, and disadvantages our students.
The government has introduced the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and as scholars, we should welcome the idea behind it, because it rightly aims to redress the balance between research and teaching, two fundamental components of our profession. However, the vast majority of us would argue that the metrics being used do not properly measure teaching quality.
We do not want to add yet more pressures on academics, but we do want their contribution to teaching and all the work they do for their students to be properly recognised.
How do we accurately assess an academic’s contribution to teaching? Measuring research, by comparison, has always been relatively straightforward. This is a personal challenge I have grappled with myself as chair of academic progression panels at my own institutions.
Recognising teaching excellence
At the Royal Academy of Engineering, where I am Chair of the Education and Skills Committee, we have been tackling this issue. We want to make the UK the best place for engineering education, but we recognise that in order to do this we need to change the way teaching is recognised and rewarded in higher education.
We asked academics what value they thought their institutions place on teaching within the promotions process. You might not be surprised to learn that more junior members of faculty, up to Reader, perceived little interest from their senior leaders when it came to teaching, yet paradoxically the senior leaders themselves said this was really important. So something is going wrong.
The value of teaching was acknowledged by academics at all levels, and tools such as TEF are driving change in this area, but the evaluation of teaching is new territory that needs to be explored.
What we found through our research was that a structure was needed to assess and provide evidence of teaching ability and influence in the profession, in order to support a culture change and boost the value placed on teaching. As a result, we developed an evaluation framework, which is now published and is free for all to use.
The Career Framework for University Teaching has been reviewed and tested by a group of universities from around the world, and refined based on their experience. Institutions have held this framework up to the light and asked: does this make sense? They have mapped it against their own career framework, used it to build a career structure from scratch, and scrutinised the evidence requirements to make it work in practice.
This week we have published the results of that hard work, carried out over four years.
And does it work? It is early days, and you might say that since our pilot scheme involved only twelve institutions from the thousands around the world, so what? The rebalancing of the importance of research and teaching will not happen overnight. But this is the beginning of a change, and these universities, from very different cultures and backgrounds, collaborated on a framework and found it to be a helpful tool in ensuring that quality teaching could be recognised, once adapted to their existing structures.
Once we get the evaluation and development of teaching right in one institution, we need to make sure that their assessment and recognition of teaching skills is transferable to other institutions. One of the benefits of the framework is that it can be readily shared by a wide variety of universities, so it should enable the movement and development of academics who are excellent teachers. We have started with twelve institutions, but this could be of benefit to many more, particularly as universities are called upon by their governments to demonstrate how they value teaching.