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When rankings and research rules, students come last

Universities need to play closer attention to how they teach students, not just rankings. University image from

The Times Higher Education rankings will be released tomorrow and universities around the world will be clamouring to find out how they place.

As all academics know, rankings are closely tied to research. Where a university ranks depends largely on how many academics got into how many journals in the year since the rankings were last posted.

But many prospective university students would be surprised to find that the priority given to rankings and research often means their needs are the last to be met.

Nothing has changed

I have been an academic for nearly forty years, and recently, while going through my old papers, I came across the following excerpt:

“[Academics] come to the university with virtually no experience… [They are] expected not only to teach but to plan our teaching. The only analogous situation I can think of is parenthood; and yet we are being paid to be university teachers… With the stimulus of the [Inquiry into Education and Training] Williams Report, it is now time for the university administrators to pull their head out of the sand and do something.”

This was not a recent observation of mine, this paper was published in 1980 – 32 years ago. So little has changed that I could have written almost exactly the same paper today.

Students might reasonably assume that, given the substantial monies provided by government to fund tertiary education, university managers would place high priority on improving the student experience in their institution.

Sadly, with a few significant exceptions this is not the case. Research rules and our university leaders put much more effort into climbing the higher education rankings than creating a transparent reward system for their staff that excel in teaching.

Two steps forward

Although there are many outstanding teachers in our universities, ask the majority of Australian academics why they do not put more effort into teaching and they will reply that they are under continuing pressure from their Vice-Chancellors, Deans and Heads of School to lift their research performance. Universities claim to have promotion systems that reward excellence in teaching but in reality most staff know that the key to success is the number of research grants and publications they achieve.

An academic’s research output is much more important to universities than evidence they have created a truly outstanding learning experience for their students.

Over the last decade or so, there have been efforts to change this dynamic and place a greater emphasis on teaching in our universities – the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund provided incentives to improve teaching quality and the creation of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council provided some symmetry with the work of the well-established Australian Research Council.

Alas, these initiatives are no more and we are back we were 32 years ago.

Is there light on the horizon?

When my grandchildren go through my boxes in another decade or two will they too be struck by the continuing status quo of little incentive for better university teaching or will things have changed?

As an optimist, I can see a way forward. The recently-formed Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) could stimulate the much-needed change in environment. In The Conversation there have been alarms raised by some university leaders that TEQSA will be an unnecessary bureaucratic burden for established universities. They argue they should be left alone and the Agency should mainly protect the public from the risk of shonky private providers.

But I say not enough has been done to bring teaching to the forefront, so let the Agency play its part. The Teaching Standards to be developed by the Higher Education Standards Panel lead by Professor Alan Robson will be vital in this.

Better incentives

This quality assurance need not be too onerous. The standards help universities put in place a transparent reward system for excellence in teaching, including promotion criteria.

This would give hardworking academics hope that the prevailing culture will change. A university, for its part, would be required to have its promotion policy and criteria publicly available (say on the web) and provide evidence of its implementation.

If universities are required to adhere to the Standard in order to be registered as a tertiary institution then university leaders will be prompted to review their priorities and insist that the Teaching Standards are fulfilled to the ultimate benefit of their students.

To assure quality, TEQSA should be able to request a small expert panel to visit a university at short notice to review their policies and assess progress. Universities don’t need a glossy portfolio that takes months to prepare, just a regularly-updated website that contains relevant policies and data to demonstrate that policies are being implemented (i.e the number of promotions based on outstanding teaching compared to outstanding research performance).

Students should demand more

All potential students and their parents should demand evidence that their prospective university takes teaching seriously. All universities should aim to convince potential students that they will be provided with a first class learning experience; not simply be herded into lecture theatres.

Of course, excellence in research is important. I used to love researching and I feel the students benefited from my research. But excellence in teaching and excellence in research are not mutually exclusive. It is just that there is an urgent need, as there has been for these past 32 years, for a better balance between effort put into teaching compared to that put into research.

If universities want to lift their game, they should raise the profile of excellence in teaching. After all, there are more ways than ever of learning and more institutions than ever offering opportunities to learn. Those without a clearly demonstrable commitment to teaching quality will surely lose out.

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