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Teaching in higher education should be professionalised

Anyone can teach in higher education - but we owe it to staff and students to help them become the best tutors they can. David Kernohan asks what can be done.
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

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.

Untrained teachers

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

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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.

Why not?

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.

12 responses to “Teaching in higher education should be professionalised

  1. Is this conflating “not formally trained to teach” with “not developed as a teacher”? Because the two are not necessarily the same. There can be teaching cultures without formal training structures in which people support each other in becoming teachers, and engage in developing their collective teaching approaches and capabilities. That might even be a more appropriate and effective approach to developing teachers and teaching. And perhaps that fits some contexts better than others. I wonder if there is any actual research into this?

    At Warwick we have a kind of hybrid approach which has evolved over many years, and which I think works quite well. We have formal programmes to support development (aligned with UKPSF), but the emphasis is on academics as self-motivated, self-directed professionals in their departmental context. They support each other locally and across the institution, with much very well targeted support from our teaching development experts. This is aligned with departmental and faculty level teaching development activities. We find that fits better with the very diverse needs of the institution. It’s certainly not teacher training in the conventional sense. But it works.

  2. “We’ve all taken potentially fascinating modules ruined by terrible teaching,”

    Training might improve some but you’d improve more quicker by proper performance management – it’s unsurprising so much teaching is so poor when your promotion and survival is often attached to entirely different objectives.

    In many Universities it’s an irrational choice to be good at teaching because it just leads to more teaching and your promotion and career stalls. Sure many Universities pay lipservice to teaching routes but you just need to count the number of Profs of Learning and Teaching compared to Research profs to realise that is just lipservice.

    1. Couldn’t disagree more. Performance is arbitary in teaching as the KPIs are often student satisfaction led (Module Evaluation, NSS, LEO etc). Instead, we should be focussing on valuing our teachers equally with researchers. This begins with Universities investing in staff development and recognition; and crucially, giving teaching staff time to develop and share practice.

  3. I am reminded of Graham Gibbs’ Powerful Idea number 21 : ‘The most useful training of university teachers does not involve ‘training’.’ Here he is referring to the widening of our pedagogical repertoire and flexibility which should stem from experience of teaching in different contexts. However, a closer reading reveals that, far from suggesting it is unnecessary, training designed to enhance our ability to learn from experience, evaluate our effectiveness and adopt a ‘student focus, is the most powerful.

  4. Those that can, do, those that can’t, teach, those that can’t teach, teach the teachers…

    Universities should look through ALL of their staff and be prepared to use/give credit to those who are pedagogically qualified, those Academics who have for years insisted non-academics cannot claim to teach, when they clearly can and do might well be upset, but it’s time qualified Teaching Technicians and others were properly acknowledged.

    1. I run the “teacher training” programme at Aston University which is accredited by Advance HE and leads to Fellowship. We don’t (and can’t) ‘teach how to teach’ but instead aim to create opportunities for the participants to ‘learn how to teach’ by involving them in collaborative and constructivist learning activities. The programme is open to ‘non-academics’ who teach and/or support learning, such as lab technicians, careers advisors and learning technologists – and I totally agree that their skills should be recognised and valued. Their inclusion adds value since I believe that it is the sharing of ideas and perspectives from a wide variety of contexts is one of the key benefits of the programme. I also agree with Robert O’Toole’s comments above about the essential requirement for disciplinary staff development activities – even something as simple as regular (informal and supportive) peer review of teaching.

  5. Quite a pedestrian analysis by a non-professional non-academic low altitude flyer.
    Can you please demonstrate any correlation between being trained as a teacher and effectiveness and student satisfaction? No. Therefore can you please demonstrate why higher education or any other teachers need to be ‘trained’? And can you demonstrate which elements of teacher training are effective?

    1. Interesting that in the sector that exists on its claim to pass on skills and knowledge, and its magic power to hand out qualifications, that we find such hostility to the notion that you might be able to teach someone to be better at passing on skills and knowledge, and rejection of the notion that acquiring a qualification would be any evidence of being better at those things.

  6. It is about time this was publicly called out. Working at a HEI I have always been astounded at the lack of teacher qualifications and training. For those arguing that it shouldn’t matter: of course, there are those that are naturally better than others and more interested in teaching and they can teach well without the training. However, there is a LOT of bad practice – I’m saying that as someone who has completed four degrees (three relatively recently), so have experienced it (as well as know colleagues who simply read from slides). HEA fellowship has recently been seen as the only training that is valued be HEIs – while useful to be reflective, it is not a substitute for training – not even remotely. With marketisation of HE and change in funding structure and students paying more, the status quo re teaching quals cannot continue. However, the danger is that academic staff are simply asked to do more. We’ve seen the REF, the TEF and I am sure we will see more emphasis (and regulation) on teaching quality in the near future. It’s hard to identify solutions, but an acknowledgement needs to be made around what staff are continually being asked to do before a solution is sought.

  7. There might be a need to differentiate between a ‘trained’ (or proficient) teacher and a ‘good’ (even great) teacher. The trained teacher understands the relationship between a course’s learning objectives/outcomes and the assessment criteria devised to evaluate the student’s understanding of those learning outcomes. The trained teacher also ensures that students have the opportunity to understand this relationship (i.e., provide detailed and accessible assessment briefs, which students might or might not engage with, and is prepared to answer questions about the assessment criteria). The trained teacher also ensures that all marking correctly interprets the assessment criteria (i.e., that the marking follows the assessment criteria and is therefore seen as fair by all involved). This is the minimum requirement to be seen as a proficient teacher and this requires training in the basics of the assessment of learning. Such a teacher can be dull in their lectures, socially reticent in their interactions with students, but is scrupulously fair in their marking. The good teacher is all these things plus (e.g., enthusiastic and entertaining etc.).

    In this regard Seanie M Finneran’s request for evidence of a correlation between training and student satisfaction is naïve if not misinformed. Even a cursory glance at the National Students Survey (NSS) questions 8,9,10 and 11 covering Assessment and Feedback, [See for instance David Kernohan’s excellent analysis of the 2021 NSS results: will show that overall, the UK HE sector needs to ‘up its game’ when it comes to assessment and feedback and provide comprehensive training in the principals of assessment.

  8. It’s not hard to see university priorities. Just look at reward and recognition. I have no administrative oversight of my teaching quality or have requirements to keep professionally up to date (there are meetings on a programme level about NSS, but that’s more about institutional reputation and is more collective), but I do have to submit an annual research report/plan and then have a yearly review with my line manager. I can apply for periodic research leave, but it is only based on research and staff without research in their contracts are not eligible. We are in the middle of strike action over pay and pension cuts, yet my only tangible routes to higher pay or better conditions are through research. Guess where professional priorities get directed?

  9. There are a number of problems here and the number of people without a piece of paper to say they can teach isn’t the biggest one.

    First, one is put into a teaching role on the strength of one’s research but they’re completely different skills. I’m a pretty good researcher but a mediocre teacher at best by my own admission. I’ve been put through a PG teaching qualification but didn’t find it useful at all in any practical sense because it was mostly just reflective essays on the state of the university structure rather than about any actual teaching. A better question is does the teacher holding such a qualification make them a better teacher? In my experience, no.

    So you’d expect the teaching focused lecturers to be good at teaching right? Wrong…Teaching focused lecturers I’ve seen were just moved to those roles because they were poor at research and the university didn’t want to count them for REF. Most of them just seem lazy and unmotivated.

    The reality is we should…

    1. Split up teaching and research roles. It’s crazy to think many people will be outstanding at both and universities will always prioritise research. If we want to be good at both we need to hire people with the right skillsets.

    2. Radically rethink the qualifications for teaching. They need to be more focused and practically based.

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