Are we set to downgrade teaching in universities?

The original core mission of universities was to provide students with the best possible learning experience. The main obligation of a professor was to teach, and to do it in the best possible way. Let us leave aside for a moment that most lecturers and professors were never actually trained to teach, it was nevertheless their main vocation. As the university model matured, influenced in particular by the Humboldt model of the university developed in Germany (but of which there aren’t actually that many examples in Germany today), and more recently by the best public and private universities in the United States, research began to take on more and more importance, and also began to be the key driver of funding: globally the best resourced universities have the highest research performance.

So as research became the key differentiator between the very good and the not-quite-so-very-good universities, and as research also provided easy metrics on which to assess performance, it became the major basis on which academic career development was determined. Once you tell a person that they must focus on a particular activity in order to secure promotion, that’s what they focus on.

Now something else has also been added to this scenario. Over recent years, in Ireland at least (but I believe also elsewhere), the unit of resource for teaching has been gradually but very noticeably reduced. What that means is that the funding made available for each student (in Ireland paid by the state) has declined in real terms, and more recently in actual numbers. At exactly the same time, and it has to be said for very good reasons, the government has increased the amount of research funding available. But the result of this combination of measures is that the value of teaching is being seriously undermined.

But this experience is not absolutely unique to us in Ireland. A recent issue of the US Chronicle of Higher Education contained an article suggesting that teaching is becoming less attractive to faculty and does not enjoy a high priority status. Professors feel that their universities are pushing them to put research above teaching in the organisation of their working lives, and moreover don’t feel much pressure on them to teach well, either from their universities or from students.

I have no doubt that we must continue to build up, develop and perfect our research performance as a country; our future depends on it. But we must not do this by downgrading teaching, refusing to recognise or reward it and withdrawing funds from it. Teaching in universities should not be an after-thought, and we need to ensure that universities remain places where the quality of teaching is seen as important. This cannot be achieved if we continue to withdraw resources from teaching and learning while ramping up student numbers. It is time we began to recognise that.

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6 Comments on “Are we set to downgrade teaching in universities?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    While universities may be downgrading teaching for funding or other reasons, in many respects they are leaning on an open door: many academics are only too happy to see it downgraded because they don’t really care for it.
    What happens when an academic achieves success & distinction either as a researcher or as a leader? Often the first thing they do is get out of teaching. How many university presidents or vice-presidents teach, for example? I find this trend deeply disturbing.

  2. Vincent Says:

    In fairness though. The pay to student ratio was at an absurd level in the near past. Levels that the UK universities could only hope for since the 50’s.

    And with all the league tables. Is there one that shows the pay, workload and relative output. As I’m on the subject, as far as the Times and that other one in concerned. TCD and UCD are twice as good as NUI,M and UL
    is the pay in both those places half as good ?.

    • Jilly Says:

      Vincent – one of the criteria for grading universities in these league tables is staff: student ratios. The worse it is, the lower the score. So you could argue (only slightly jokingly) that in those Irish universities with bad staff: student ratios, the staff are doing up to twice the work. And more seriously, British staff: student ratios are much, much better than Irish ones, which means the staff really are doing twice the work in many cases. Something which should be taken into consideration when discussing pay. I know of several instances of British academics refusing job offers in Ireland despite what appears to be a hefty hike in salary, because they realised that the working conditions are SO much worse: more teaching, more students per class, less admin support, less research time or funding.

      • Vincent Says:

        Jilly; I grant you that there really are reasons that pay within the system is on par with the top in the world. And sometimes twice that.
        However unless you start clearing up these things that make little sense on the face of it, you will be targeted like the pay of the politicians. Where Cowan is paid more that Obama.
        The reality is the Uni system is really very bad at spin. And by Christ you will need someone with the ability of a Mandelson merged with a Alastair Campbell. For any spokesperson other that the Author of the Blog couldn’t spin if they were wound with rope and yanked with a jet.

    • Al Says:

      Student staff ratio can mean many things
      Total staff to students?
      Lecturers to students
      Average class size to lecturers
      Actual attendance of lecture to lecturers

      • Jilly Says:

        As you might expect, this is quite a complicated topic. But the ‘normal’ measure is academic staff to students rated as ‘Full Time Equivalents’ (so a student doing double honours is half an FTE to each of their departments). So within universities it varies from department to department. But in Ireland ratios of 1:30 aren’t unusual, whereas in most departments in most UK universities it’s 1:20 or less. This really does make a BIG difference to life on the ground…

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