Take University Teaching Seriously

Nieuws | de redactie
17 september 2013 | Teaching at primary schools receives a lot of attention, where teaching at universities is often forgotten. The Australian Grattan Institute investigated how university teachers can best be supported and how quality can be boosted. A more systematic approach of teaching initiatives might be a good start.

In Australia, like in many other countries a national debate is being held on the quality of teaching in schools. “We worry about who is recruited to teach, what qualifications they have, and how well their students learn. Teaching quality in universities has received much less attention,” the Australian Grattan Institute states in the report “Taking University Teaching Seriously”. With higher enrollments in nearly every OECD country, the importance of quality teaching at universities is rising. Maybe Tony Abott agrees on this,  in comparison to his stance on science

Many Australian vocational students that would normally have gone straight at work now enter universities, resulting in a higher education enrolment rate of nearly 40 percent. In many OECD countries this rate is even higher. However, dropout rates for some groups of students are over 25 percent, a phenomenon not endemic to Australia. To reduce this waste of talent, time and money the Grattan Institute investigated teaching at universities and boosted the discussion on its improvement.

Rather a researcher than a teacher

“Academics are typically appointed for their subject expertise, with much less attention given to their teaching skills. Most academics have no training in teaching or have taken only short courses.” Critics sometimes claim that teaching should be concentrated in ‘teach-only’ universities. However, the report suggests “that removing research would not on its own solve the teaching problem`.

University recruitment in Australia focuses more on research performance than on teaching skills. “Universities are multi-purpose organizations that employ most ongoing staff in combined teaching-research roles. Hiring effective teachers is less important than securing talented researchers who can boost research results. Academics typically prefer research to teaching and government funding directly rewards strong research performance.

Tough tenure for teachers

A potential solution might be to redraw the recruitment strategies of universities, in the past little attention has been given to these policies. New selection criteria can help bring into universities people who want to teach and are good at it. On top of that, excellent teachers – more often than excellent researchers – find difficulties to find tenure, as the following Canadian example from the report shows.

Last year…a popular instructor with the School of Business, [at Carleton University], didn’t have his term contract as a full-time lecturer renewed. The university argued that the business school’s accreditation, funding and reputation hinges on its research capacity, and that when funding for a full-time tenure track position became available, it had to concentrate on hiring a professor with a track record in research as well as teaching. Despite his [the instructor’s] teaching talents, [he] doesn’t have a PhD. Hundreds of students signed a petition to have him reinstated. He accepted a contract to teach two courses this academic year.

Taking teaching seriously permanent academic staff by functionHistorically, academics have had little preparation before they have to teach. By trial and error one has to master the profession, often resulting long struggle. Since great teachers are not born but made, extra support for teachers might induce a steep rise in teaching quality. In Norway, Finland and the UK young academics have initial teaching training. Globally, a range of new initiatives like induction programs, mentoring, training programs, centers for teaching and learning, grants for innovation, support for new learning environments, student evaluations, teacher peer review, and benchmarking effective teaching practices are more and more implemented. Despite this trend, there are still international calls for a more systemic approach, since most of these initiatives are rather ad hoc and unevenly spread.

Taking teaching seriously tenure contracts teachers

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