Funding and teaching quality – the answer?

Alasdair Smith has an interesting piece here arguing that the Browne review heralds a revolution in teaching. Since ‘funding will follow the student’, universities will at last have an incentive to teach better, just as the RAE provided an incentive to produce more research.

But will they? I’d like to believe it. It’s a better way than forcing academics to acquire dubious qualifications in the theory of adult learning.

The flaw in reasoning, though, is that students don’t choose programmes based on variations in the quality of teaching. There’s even a recent HEFCE report on the information prospective students use to prove it. As long as the quality is reasonably ok (which it broadly is these days, barring some disasters) other considerations kick in – institutional reputation, local convenience, what parents and friends say, whether you’ve got the grades. And so on. The student experience may be worse if undergraduate teaching isn’t done by star professors (or maybe not), but students don’t seem to use this as a factor in deciding where to go.

It would also take years, possibly decades, for student choice based on teaching quality to have an impact through word of mouth.

A much more direct and rapid funding incentive would be needed to make a difference. The only realistic option, itself fraught with snags, is performance based funding. I’ll write a bit more about how this might work later.


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