Teaching: at the heart of higher education?

It is almost exactly 30 years ago that I first entered a room to teach students. That was in Cambridge, and I was doing a PhD and earning a little extra income by doing some teaching in my field. I hope the students got something from it, but I sometimes wonder – I was very inexperienced at the time, and like most new teachers very nervous. Two years later I became a lecturer in TCD’s School of Business Studies, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions.

I always enjoyed teaching, and particularly liked participative classes in which I would learn a lot from some very bright students. I didn’t like examining so much, not least because you could not help being aware of the effect on young people’s lives and careers of the results. But when in 2000 I had to give up regular teaching on taking up the post of President of DCU, I did feel significant regret that this part of my life would be missing.

By that time (i.e. the year 2000) I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it. And as many academics know, that’s how the academic promotion system in almost all universities works. That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement. However, the traditional key core mission of a university is to teach, and if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t. DCU has adjusted its promotion procedures to encourage staff to provide evidence of teaching excellence, and we have an annual President’s Award for good teaching. But we also know that this is not yet enough.

One of the aims I have set myself as part of the strategic planning process that is about to begin in DCU is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and we must be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research. When we have advanced this discussion somewhat in DCU I shall return to the topic here, but in the meantime would welcome comments from academics, students and former students, and others, about how we should encourage and reward really excellent teaching.

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