For all the ministerial hand-wringing about a high quality student experience, there is one student expectation that is routinely not met – and you never hear about it.
As a student, emerging from previous stages of education, you would expect staff employed to teach you to have some kind of qualification that means that they know how to do teaching. It’s a reasonable assumption – that teaching in higher education is in some ways like teaching anywhere else, and therefore should be a profession with clear standards.
This is not the case. There are many providers where it is most likely you will be taught by someone who has no training in teaching and just bases their teaching practice on what they remember experiencing as an undergraduate. Enormous swathes of teaching practice in UK higher education are self-reproducing perpetuations of something that (a number of years ago) may once have been considered “adequate”.
There is data collected on teaching qualifications, and there are qualifications and professional bodies that purport to ensure teaching quality. Here are the qualifications that HESA collects data on:
- Institutional qualifications accredited against the UK Professional Standards Framework
- AdvanceHE teaching fellowships (at one of three levels)
- Staff and Educational Development Education (SEDA) recognition
- The AdvanceHE National Teaching Fellowship Scheme Individual Award
- Qualifications covering teaching in higher education, secondary education, further education, or lifelong learning.
- UK professional UK body recognition for teaching in higher education
- Overseas accreditations, and qualifications.
The only data we ever get to see is based on a yes/no indicator that covers all of these potential routes. You may note that at least one of these can include people who aren’t trained to teach in higher education at all.
What we see
On the face of it, it is a pretty depressing situation. There are some very famous providers where less than a third of staff who are employed to teach are qualified to do so.
But what should concern us even more is that there are so many staff marked as “Not known” – meaning a provider is simply unable to tell whether or not a teaching qualification is held by a member of staff.
Because this field is not really used for anything – it is just published by HESA, there’s no regulatory use made of it (though it might show up in TEF institutional submissions) – the data quality could be considered to be poor. The quality of data returned to HESA bears a close relationship to the amount of external interest paid to that data and the likelihood that people will take action as a result of it – like car parking data in HESA Estates, ACTCHQUAL is very much bumping along the bottom.
How to fix it
For me, the assumption that teaching in higher education is not something that requires any specific training or skills to do just doesn’t stand up. We’ve all taken potentially fascinating modules ruined by terrible teaching, and all been inspired into new areas of interest by a truly outstanding tutor. We feed back on this, of course, via module evaluations – but we don’t know whether any of this is taken seriously. We can do better.
Higher education in the UK needs a professional body for staff who teach – and it should be generally expected that if your job is to teach students then you should have received some good quality training in how to do so. We could finesse this a bit – PhD supervisors should probably be trained in how to do supervision, other staff who support teaching (demonstrators, librarians, student support specialists) should be trained to do the things they do.
As is usual with good ideas in higher education, this has been tried before and it failed.
Way back in time
Paragraph 4.14 of the 2003 White Paper (The Future of Higher Education) reads, in part:
At present, there are no nationally recognised professional standards for teachers in higher education; and many of those who teach have never received any training in how to do so. In order that teaching in higher education is treated seriously as a profession in its own right, and that teachers are given the skills they need, we expect that national professional standards will be agreed by 2004–05… we will expect all new teaching staff to obtain a teaching qualification which meets the standards from 2006.
The management of the process of reaching agreement on nationally recognised professional standards was given to the Higher Education Academy – a then new body (formed of previous agencies, of which more later) owned by Universities UK and Guild HE on behalf of the sector, and funded by HEFCE.
This torturous endeavour led to the establishment of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) – despite a wide-ranging consultation document drafted in part by a promising but wayward young Policy Officer at HEFCE this new UKPSF bore a close relationship to the standards used by a predecessor body: the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE).
ILTHE was one of the three organisations that were merged into the Higher Education Academy – and itself owed its existence to the 1997 Dearing Report (paragraph 8.61):
…We see advantage in establishing an organisation that can accredit training and practice, and recognise excellence in teaching at higher levels of recognised status. Such a body should have national standing, as in other professions. We propose the creation of an Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
ILTHE didn’t so much establish teacher training standards as borrow them from a much older organisation – the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA). SEDA had established the Teacher Accreditation Scheme (TAS) in 1993 – by 2003 this was becoming the Professional Development Framework (PDF), which remains a multi-level, multi-specialism framework that was hugely ahead of its time.
Regulation and reform
The intention in the 2003 White Paper was to reach a goal of most staff having a teaching qualification by 2006 in the gentlest way possible – accrediting courses offered to staff new to teaching, recognising equivalent qualifications and status, and offering a range of further levels of support to involve more experienced staff. The idea of formal regulation – in those days a condition of HEFCE funding – always hung in the background. The new Higher Education Academy was not keen to become a regulatory organisation that maintained a “source of truth” on each individual who teaches in UK higher education, but the idea was at least discussed.
As things stand Advance HE:
- Accredits provider-led courses to the UKPSF
- Recognises the completion of these courses via a (paid for) Fellowship (FHEA)
- Supports advanced professional development via Senior (SFHEA) and Principal (PFHEA) Fellowships.
- Also recognises outstanding teachers via the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS)
The professional standards themselves were last updated in 2011 – from a 2022 perspective they do look antiquated (post-pandemic, the skills needed to teach and support learning online or remotely feel pretty central).
AdvanceHE has just started a consultation process on the next steps for the UKPSF. The standards themselves are now used internationally, and there is a keenness to reflect the realities of the teaching role in 2022 in what is covered in the framework and accredited courses. Do get involved.
So we are a long way from mandatory professional standards for staff who teach – or even an expectation that someone who stands up in front of a (real or virtual) room full of students will have had some training on the basics of teaching.
Some of the common arguments against this goal come from academic staff themselves. For instance:
- Some staff feel that early career academics and PhD candidates should be focused entirely on their research rather than what they are actually paid for doing at that stage of their career (teaching large numbers of undergraduates).
- Some feel that industry or other external experts should not be expected to know how to do the job they are brought in to do.
- Some feel training in the academic discipline of teaching in higher education is patronisingly straightforward, or unreasonably grounded in educational theory, or is just something they don’t respect.
We’ve reached the stage where we pay no regulatory attention to the quality of teaching in higher education and instead use proxy outcomes measures (graduate jobs! completions!) that are at best only tangentially in the control of providers.
For me, this means the time for that kind of opposition is passed – when the choice is to properly train teaching staff or to submit to the socio-economically slanted lottery of B3 I think we need to decide which side we are really on.