Author: Tessa Dagley – Associate Commissioning Editor, Teaching, Epigeum
Over the past year, I have been immersed in discussions about teaching development in higher education. I have spoken to higher ed. professionals from the UK to Germany, from Kuwait to Australia, and attended multiple conferences. Key topics have included development opportunities and support for university educators, the evolving nature of teaching, and the challenges faced by institutions.
‘Disruption’. ‘Revolution’. ‘Opportunity’.
Unsurprisingly, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – and more widely, the universal drive for benchmarking – has been central to conversation. Debate has been energetic, passionate. The TEF metrics have been deemed flawed; many argue that the framework has little to do with actual teaching.
What struck me most at a recent conference, however, was that – for all the clamour around the TEF – the sector generally agrees that the framework’s intentions are positive: it has helped to nudge teaching to the top of the agenda in higher education. And this is a good thing.
Of course, those who work in higher education do not need the TEF to make them care about teaching. Every academic, director of teaching and learning or DVC I have spoken to has reiterated the same sentiment: ‘we want to provide students with the best possible experience’. The TEF, it seems, has (for better or worse) provided a platform on which to express and discuss issues related to the academic experience more publicly, more collectively.
Focusing on teaching development
Higher education has typically been the only tier of education not to insist on training for educators. Often overshadowed by the emphasis on research, excellent teaching is certainly neither guaranteed nor consistent. In the UK, the TEF has reorientated focus as participating institutions have engaged with their processes and evaluated provision. It has mirrored, too, movements to professionalise academic teaching in the sector worldwide.
Indeed, teaching has never been more prominent – or valuable. Students expect to see a return on their money. According to this year’s HEA-HEPI Student Academic Experience survey, 54 per cent of students (out of the 15,000 surveyed) felt that teaching staff motivated them to do their best work. This is up from 2016, but still means that 46 per cent found inspiration lacking. Similarly, only 65% said that they had learned ‘a lot’; at least a third thus completed their degrees without – seemingly – gaining much.
There are fantastic initiatives and fantastic teachers. Nevertheless, more can be done. Certain themes recurred throughout my conversations, emphasising the growing need for training and support:
- The kaleidoscopic nature of teaching. When I pencilled my initial thoughts about a new teaching programme, I naively thought back to stuffy lecture theatres and blurry PowerPoints. Lecturing is still a key aspect – but so is alignment, design, assessment, employability, working with students and addressing student wellbeing. Staff, too, need to be aware about how to navigate the pressures of teaching – particularly because, as one academic concluded, they are ‘more accountable’ than in the past. Teaching is increasingly holistic– and the workload (and expectations) can be daunting.
- The diverse teaching population. There is a substantial tranche of part-time educators, specialists from industry and other professionals who are required to teach sessions from time to time. This raises the question of how to train an evolving body of staff – and how to ensure that students receive high quality teaching on a consistent basis.
- Teaching and research are not necessarily mutually exclusive but staff are often pulled in opposing directions. Academic exploration is central to higher education: ideas should be challenged and progressed. However, research deserves to be accessible – and communicated via effective teaching to enthuse the next generation.
Whether post-TEF analysis will lead to significant reform of the framework is yet to be seen. What is clear is that, TEF or not, teaching will remain a priority over the coming years – in the UK and internationally.
We look forward to working with universities to support teaching staff and to, ultimately, enhance the academic experience of students with our latest collaborative project University Teaching: Core Skills. Hear more about this collaboration from the project Expert Advisor, Dr Rosalind Duhs, with this recent interview discussing how universities can motivate new teaching staff to develop core skills.