Saturday, October 6, 2012

When Rankings and Research Rules, Students Come Last

An Oxford degree ceremony — the Pro-Vice-Chanc...
An Oxford degree ceremony - the Pro-Vice-Chancellor in MA gown and hood, Proctor in official dress and new Doctors of Philosophy in scarlet full dress. Behind them, a bedel, another Doctor and Bachelors of Arts and Medicine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Emeritus Professor Adrian Lee, Emeritus Professor, previously Pro Vice Chancellor (Education & Quality Improvement) and Professor of Medical Microbiology at UNSW at University of New South Wales, The Conversation:

The Times Higher Education rankings will be released tomorrow and universities around the world will be clamouring to find out how they place.

As all academics know, rankings are closely tied to research. Where a university ranks depends largely on how many academics got into how many journals in the year since the rankings were last posted.

But many prospective university students would be surprised to find that the priority given to rankings and research often means their needs are the last to be met.

Nothing has changed

I have been an academic for nearly forty years, and recently, while going through my old papers, I came across the following excerpt:

“[Academics] come to the university with virtually no experience … [they are] expected not only to teach but to plan our teaching. The only analogous situation I can think of is parenthood; and yet we are being paid to be university teachers … with the stimulus of the [Inquiry into Education and Training] Williams Report, it is now time for the university administrators to pull their head out of the sand and do something.”

This was not a recent observation of mine, this paper was published in 1980 - 32 years ago. So little has changed that I could have written almost exactly the same paper today. Students might reasonably assume that, given the substantial monies provided by government to fund tertiary education, university managers would place high priority on improving the student experience in their institution.

Sadly, with a few significant exceptions this is not the case. Research rules and our university leaders put much more effort into climbing the higher education rankings than creating a transparent reward system for their staff that excel in teaching.

Two steps forward

Although there are many outstanding teachers in our universities, ask the majority of Australian academics why they do not put more effort into teaching and they will reply that they are under continuing pressure from their Vice-Chancellors, Deans and Heads of School to lift their research performance.

Universities claim to have promotion systems that reward excellence in teaching but in reality most staff know that the key to success is the number of research grants and publications they achieve.

An academic’s research output is much more important to universities than evidence they have created a truly outstanding learning experience for their students.

Over the last decade or so, there have been efforts to change this dynamic and place a greater emphasis on teaching in our universities - the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund provided incentives to improve teaching quality and the creation of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council provided some symmetry with the work of the well-established Australian Research Council.

Alas, these initiatives are no more and we are back we were 32 years ago.

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