Thursday, 26 April 2012

"Liam Burns says the law should require academics to be qualified"

Was interested to note that the president of the UK National Union of Students, Liam Burns, is calling for university lecturers to have teaching qualifications, as reported in last Sunday's Observer. On the face of it, this seems perfectly reasonable, especially in the light of the new undergraduate fee structure. Surely for £9,000 per annum, students should expect certain standards?

Here are my thoughts:

I predicted some time back that one of the more serious and corrosive results of the hike in student fees would be that undergraduates would demand better "customer service" for their money, and would in some cases initiate legal action against universities who do not award them the degree class they think they deserve, citing such "failings" as "inadequate teaching".

It's time we got back to embracing the concept that a university's first objective should be to advance knowledge and understanding through high-quality, scholarly research and discourse. Some would argue that should be its only objective. I am not sure I would go quite that far, but almost that far perhaps.

Universities, like all seats of learning from the kindergarten upwards, benefit from teaching and stimulating their pupils, as of course do the pupils themselves. But the balance from what might call "total teaching" to "acting as a mature sounding-board for a new researcher" should change steadily through time. I work with PhD students. They often tell me that this transition to their being required to take significant responsibility for their research and output, compared to undergraduate and master's studies, can be tough, though they find this stimulating and exciting.

Similar is the transition from the A-Level student in their last two years at school to the undergraduate. This transition is, or should be, due to the marked difference between the objectives of the school to the objectives of the good university. The undergraduate finds himself in an environment where his seniors are principally engaged in research in their fields, and their teaching activities are in second place, even if a close second. This, I believe, is as it should and must be. This means that it becomes the undergraduate's responsibility to actively learn, to actively seek scholarly discourse with lecturers, to take responsibility for her, the undergraduate's, timely output of good quality work.

On the point of "teaching qualifications". I have largely been taught by people, both at school and university, who had no teaching qualifications. I went to grammar schools. Teachers there had to be graduates, but were not required to have teaching qualifications in those days. Most were good, some outstanding, a few were hopeless. Teaching qualifications in themselves will never ensure good teaching, by which we mean teaching which not only informs effectively, but inspires and promotes scholarly and critical thinking - and this can start in nursery school!

As an undergraduate geologist, I was privileged to be taught by the great Jake Hancock (then at King's College London). He many years later was my PhD supervisor at Imperial. He had no teaching qualifications. I recall one undergraduate palaeontology practical class led by him. We entered the lab expecting to see the usual fossils-laid-out-on-benches. Instead there was a table strewn with fundamentalist Christian pamphlets. He asked us what we thought of these. We responded with one voice that they were all complete rubbish. I shall never forget his next words, "But why are they rubbish? You must be able to argue why they are rubbish or your objections have no value!" That's what I mean by education.

If Liam Burns wants great researchers such as Jake Hancock was to take time from their research to get virtually useless "teaching qualifications" then he does not understand higher education, nor his growing responsibilities as a student.

1 comment:

  1. You are quite correct, no teaching qualification will give a student the kind of experience you exemplified.