Do lecturers need licences to practise?

There are quite a few odd things in the Browne review, though nothing quite as odd as the dog’s breakfast that the government has succeeded in making of it.

But that’s another story.

One of Lord Browne’s home-grown curiosities, tucked away on page 48, is his idea that a university won’t get funding from student contributions unless it requires all its new academics to do a course in how to teach.

This notion, and its implication that academics will have to get licences to teach, has unsurprisingly been received with contempt.

However, it seems to me a good jolly good idea in principle that lecturers should learn how to teach. Not just in principle, either – in a previous life as a PVC in a research-intensive university, I distributed extra funding to departments depending on how many of their staff had done our training programme. It certainly helped to get the message home about the importance of good teaching.

And I’ve written a lot about how important it is for lecturers to learn how to teach, how they can do this (mainly by working it out for themselves) and how doing it might help make their jobs more exciting. I’m a believer!

But there are problems with the concept of compulsion. Incentives are one thing: making something so contentious into a condition of access to all funding from the graduates who have been educated by you is quite another.

Back in heady days of 1997, another review by Ron Dearing proposed the idea of compulsory training and licences for lecturers.

Its execution turned out to be a disaster. Academics stayed away from the grandiloquently-titled ‘Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education’ in droves. It crashed and burned. Its toxic legacy has haunted the project of improving and recognising university teaching ever since.

The problems with ‘licences to practise’ in academia are several:

1. Many of the training programmes (though by no means all) are poor. Too much adult learning dogma, jargon and touchy-feely bullshit: not enough focus on how to teach your subject and on practical skills. And not enough emphasis on how ideas about teaching (‘theory’) and how to teach (‘practice’) can enlighten each other for the benefit of students’ experiences. A lot of educational development is self-serving claptrap dressed up with fancy names (I know of what I speak – in another life even more millennia ago I used to work in an ‘educational development centre’ myself).

2. Having an organisation (the HEA) whose purpose is to improve university teaching and learning act as the arbiter of whether a training programme meets the criteria for a licence. That’s an issue of quality and standards, regulation and oversight. Would you want to work on improving your practice with an organisation that’s pompous enough to say it has the right to judge you? Licences to practice descend like lead balloons in most quarters of academia – especially those that believe that research is a vital element of a university. Remember the dismal fate of the Institute for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education before sounding off about what a good idea it would be to coerce lecturers into doubtful qualifications in teaching.

3. The university independence issue. If the government’s version of Browne is put into practice, we face a more regulated, state-run future in universities. As I’ve blogged before, that’s a disaster waiting to happen for teaching quality and the student experience. As a VC, I’d want to appoint the best faculty I could find, not ones a controlling government with rather limited knowledge of the reality of academia wanted me to hire.

The belief that the state is the answer to all our problems is as strong in the current government as the last. So much for a freer market in higher education.

4. The tricky issue of students. Like they’re what it’s all about… despite the catastrophe for the NUS at Millbank last week, they are on the right lines about more student involvement and engagement in curricula and assessment. Who has consulted students about requiring universities to make all new academics do an ‘accredited’ training programme as a condition of getting their hands on customer money? (EDIT – 18 November: The NUS now seems to have come out on the side of stronger regulation, with not a word about student engagement. The deafening clatter of dummies being thrown from prams implies that they must now be keen on licensing).

5. Does anyone really believe that the HEA’s ‘accreditation’ processes are perceptibly different from form filling and cosying up to the assessors? (Needless to say, I’m not drawing on any inside knowledge here…). Does anyone really believe that pointless bureaucracy is a way to improve the student experience?

Just one more time: Helping lecturers to  teach better is good. Incentives that encourage them to do it are good. Imposing daft penalties on universities that won’t toe the latest statist line is … frankly bizarre.

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