Lecturer or university teacher?

In all the current hoopla over university finances and student funding in England, one largely overlooked output of the Browne review concerns the teaching credentials of university lecturers. Lord Browne’s panel is recommending that all new lecturers obtain a teaching qualification similar to that required of school teachers. This would involve a significant time commitment on the part of newly-appointed lecturers, and a major financial and infrastructural investment in teacher training by the universities and central government.

This subject is of continued interest to me, despite my failure to secure a university faculty position following time served as a contract researcher. On a few occasions in the early noughties I came close to getting a university teaching job, but the intervening years, my ceasing to be an active researcher as the result of a funding drought and lack of personal inspiration in an area of science that appears to have lost its spark, and endemic age discrimination in academic science, have killed off my chances of returning to scientific research and teaching at tertiary level.

In science, at least, university lectureships are awarded on the basis of applicants’ records as researchers, with the critical criteria being journal paper output and research funding potential. An interest in and aptitude for science pedagogy plays virtually no part in the decision making process, and the result is a distribution of teaching quality skewed toward the mediocre and worse. The better science lecturers tend to be so by virtue of their personalities and personal experience, rather than pedagogic skill.

In recent years there has been some effort put by British universities into the development of their human resources on the teaching side, but the focus if not obsession remains with research output. It will take more than the hiring of a few ‘Teaching Fellows’ – individuals employed mostly on short-term contracts, whose responsibilities lie largely in curriculum development – to redress the imbalance between teaching and research.

The Browne recommendation that all university teaching staff be required to undergo formal training and obtain some kind of Qualified Teacher Status could be the way forward, but only if flexibility and creativity are built into the system. The plan will fail if we simply transplant the rigidities of school teacher training and accreditation into the tertiary sector.