Author: Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe – Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre, Australian Catholic University. Kevin takes the institutional lead in all matters relating to learning and teaching while maintaining his role as President of the Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching (CAULLT). He is also an Expert Advisor for Epigeum’s University Teaching: Core Skills collaboration.
For many of us working in higher education, teaching as both a separate and measurable indicator of institutional quality, will increasingly be seen – quite rightly – as a determinant of institutional excellence. A marker to be measured by means of internally and externally developed (and often nationally applied) criteria and to be communicated in open and transparent forums (such as the Australian Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching [QILT]) that are primarily designed to ensure that our students (who all pay for their learning experience one way or another) can make ‘educated’ and ‘informed’ decisions as to where to spend their university learning dollar (or Euro or pound).
Frameworks and Fellowships
Over the past few years we have seen the UK Government, as an outcome of its 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, embark upon the design, delivery and reporting of the 2017 Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – now the ‘Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework’ –as one ‘whole of system’ response to measuring teaching. In addition, the UK Higher Education Academy continues to roll out its successful and increasingly international Fellowship scheme.
In Australia, Charles Sturt University’s Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Vann, has proposed creating our own version (Campus Morning Mail – 18 September 2017). In the meantime, the ‘Australian University Teaching and Criteria and Standards Framework’ has been developed to more objectively describe the expectations of the teacher in higher education at the national level. Both approaches, I believe, respond to the current lack of clarity within and across universities as to what teaching performance looks like, let alone excellent teaching performance! All of which goes to the very heart of the matter: how do we ensure that students in higher education get an excellent learning experience from outstanding teachers. If we can’t objectively describe this, how are we going to measure it?
There is not necessarily anything new in this debate. Governments have long sought mechanisms to better understand and interpret the bang that they are getting for their HE bucks! The UK and Australia have nation- and sector-wide evaluation tools in place intended to capture the student’s perspective or ‘voice’. In Australia, our national quality assurance agency the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) regulates to the expectations described within the Higher Education Standards Framework 2015 (Threshold Standards), which explicitly includes teaching as Domain 3, though it doesn’t, incidentally, detail any specific criteria to describe teaching performance. To that end, QILT does publish data for the community of potential future students and those who support them. It is, therefore, providing those very ‘potential future students’ with an opportunity to make a ‘where-to-learn’ decision based upon more than just campus access via public transport or ‘institutional reputation’ – much of which is often situated upon the very activity of that institution’s performance (namely research) with which most of them will have little engagement.
Whilst we know that measuring ‘teaching performance’ is always going to be an imperfect science (of course, it is open to being ‘gamed’), these national quests to communicate ‘teaching quality’ make an important statement of intent by those who hold the purse strings. And, whilst I do accept that some universities are more flush than others with money from other means (e.g. research grants, endowments and commercialisation), the reality is that, for the vast majority of us, it is the learning and teaching buck (or euro or quid!) that provides the bulk of income that, accordingly, enables us to succeed as a business – before we can even begin to think about succeeding as a university (and I’d argue that they are two connected but separate things).
A broader understanding of teaching
If we are going to be measured and held to account for the quality of the student learning and academic teaching experience, it seems reasonable that we should be making deliberate, strategic efforts to ensure that we are formally and deliberately making well thought-out decisions as to how we are going to achieve this.
Clearly, it is important to recognise the need for institutional and disciplinary difference: every student’s learning experience should be informed by the vision, values and principles of the institution that they choose; it should be shaped by both discipline excellence and the scholarship of the teaching of that discipline; and it should be delivered in current and contemporary ways. I believe that this can best be achieved by providing our teachers with designed, structured and supported activities and encouraging them to engage in them.
Thus, learning to be a better (good) teacher is a process that can be informed and enhanced by engaging with the principles and criteria that define good practice. The ultimate challenge, I’d argue, is to then integrate them into the context of both the discipline of the learning as well as the institution of delivery.
Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe is an Expert Advisor for Epigeum’s University Teaching: Core Skills collaboration. ‘University Teaching: Core Skills’ is an interactive online ‘teaching toolkit’ for higher education staff. Find out how your institution can get involved here.