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The Higher Education profession

Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, gave an interesting speech last Wednesday  to Vice Chancellors gathered at the University of Sussex. It makes challenging reading for the Russell Group.

Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system.

I hear this when I talk to worried parents, such as the physics teacher whose son dropped out at the start of year two of a humanities programme at a prestigious London university, having barely set eyes on his tutor. Her other son, by contrast, studying engineering at Bristol, saw the system at its best: he was worked off his feet, with plenty of support and mostly excellent teaching.

He also quoted Palfreyman & Tapper, based on US work by Armstrong & Hamilton:

…the faculty cultures and orientations of the college professoriate have much to answer for, since they have struck a disengagement contract with their students, along the lines of I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and payment of high fees.

Depressingly, there is a lot of truth in these remarks. There is an assumption, in our and other universities, that teaching should be loaded onto those who cannot raise research funds or REF stars. Teaching is culturally associated with lack of success; every young academic knows that their promotion, or next job, will depend only on their grants and publications. So, the ambitious ones waste as little time as possible on teaching: just enough to stay out of trouble. Anything better is a result of personal vocation. Favoured sons and daughters are further rewarded with light teaching loads or with leeway about completing their duties.

National structures to enhance and recognise university teaching are not much better. The Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, inspired by the Dearing Report,  lasted from 2000 to 2004. We now have the Higher Education Academy, but it is to lose all its central funding by 2017. Within my own department, several colleagues achieved Senior or Principal Fellow status in the HEA; all have since been removed from teaching management responsibility.

Neither will you find either of the books cited below in our library; we’re not expected to read that sort of thing. There are, however, some works by Tara Brabazon; you might try The University of Google or Digital Hemlock.

Update: The library will be getting both. Thank you, Fiona.

There must be room here for the UCU to become a proper professional body. We already have our own Journal of Further and Higher Education. Have any of you read it? But UCU Congress shows far more interest in arguing over regional committee structures and splitting of branches than it does in the credibility of our profession. Can we inspire UCU to step into the void to be left by the HEA and become the BMA of higher education?

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Reshaping the University: The Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education, David Palfreyman & Ted Tapper.
Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, Elizabeth A. Armstrong & Laura T. Hamilton.

Denis Nicole

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