University teaching must be more accountable under new fee model

With students paying more than ever for university, don’t they deserve quality teaching? Flickr/Birkbeckmediasevices, CC BY-SA

Australian taxpayers currently give universities about $11 billion a year in grants and have taken on $22 billion in outstanding student debts. About one-fifth of the debts will never be repaid on current trends. This is taxpayer support for a university degree that increases the graduate’s lifetime earnings by $1 million, according to some estimates.

Universities will soon be able to charge whatever fees they like if the relevant bill is passed in the Senate. Student loans, supported by taxpayers, will balloon because universities will have significant pricing power. This means taxpayer subsidies will rise alongside uni fees and a greater proportion of student debt will remain unpaid, having to be absorbed by taxpayers.

Given students will be paying higher fees, and taxpayers will be sharing this burden, universities should be more accountable. This is particularly so in terms of teaching performance.

Make course evaluations public

Course evaluations by students should be routinely published on the university’s intranet. These should be accessible by students and include the name of the academic instructor. Written comments, within reason, should also be published.

Universities often talk about “closing the loop” when collecting data on student learning outcomes. This means addressing feedback from students about the course. But the loop is not properly closed because the students who provide the data are not allowed to see it.

Currently, if students want to see this information, they have to apply for course evaluation data under the Freedom of Information Act. A fee is charged and the waiting times are significant.

The data should also be routinely reported to government on behalf of taxpayers. Government should use the data as a performance indicator to inform the distribution of grants to universities.

Until teaching performance is better measured and more widely reported it won’t be properly funded, by either government or students. It’s what economists call an “adverse selection” problem. If you can’t discern the quality of something offered for sale, you will offer a price that reflects average quality.

The result is that sellers of the higher-quality, and often higher-cost, product are driven out of the market. Hence you are left with an “adverse selection” of the lower-quality products. This has been the fate of teaching – we under-achieve in teaching because of information and incentive problems.

The usual arguments against reporting data from student evaluations of courses and teaching often boil down to various biases: evaluations can be “bought” with higher grades, which leads to grade inflation; students may reward teaching style over substance and conflate their “experience” with learning; and true learning can only be gauged after considerable time.

These arguments are exaggerated. A comprehensive survey of the many published studies found that student evaluations of teaching are “relatively valid against a variety of indicators of effective teaching”. Granted, course evaluations and teaching evaluations are not the same but they share common questions about teaching effectiveness.

People argue teacher surveys can be “bought” with high grades. Flickr/Kevin Lim, CC BY

Professionalise teaching

The Grattan Institute report “Taking University Teaching Seriously” came up with some useful recommendations for professionalising teaching, including hiring 2,500 teaching-focused staff across 12 universities. However, it baulked at the one recommendation that everyone outside of higher education finds so obvious: the need for accreditation of teaching academics.

Why do hairdressers, real estate agents, nurses, builders, financial planners and just about every profession or trade other than university teachers require some form of minimum qualification and/or accreditation?

The job ticket for university teaching is a research degree (PhD) on the flimsy argument that good teaching must be informed by research. The literature, cited in the Grattan report, has shown the research-teaching nexus to be a myth, at least for most undergraduate teaching.

To correct this, government funding should be conditional on the degree to which a university has professionalised teaching, by requiring newly appointed teaching academics to undergo professional training in pedagogy and education more broadly. A 2010 report by the LH Martin Institute advocated creating more teaching-focused positions.

Given students could be paying up to double for their undergraduate degrees, they deserve effective and qualified teachers.