I recently came across an article discussing the idea of “teaching-only streams” in universities. The Canadian article begins by asking the question
“how can governments best meet the need to produce well-educated, global citizens in an age of significant budgetary constraint? Or, better, what methods, means and strategies will enable students to learn more yet, at the same time, cost the system less in the years to come?”
It then follows by offering a suggestion
“Three highly regarded figures in the Canadian higher education community, Ian Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, have answered this question by calling for a dramatic increase in the number of tenured university professors whose primary, if not exclusive, duty is to teach undergraduates. More emphasis on teaching, it follows, will result in greater student learning.”
The article then goes on to discuss what evidence there is in the literature to support or challenge this approach to education, for example asking if participating in research makes one a better or worse teacher (final conclusion was that there is no significant evidence to support either position). It then goes on to discuss other issues, such as how does one effectively assess what is good teaching – course evaluations? the subsequent academic progress of students?
However, after reading the article, it seems to me that several key points are overlooked.
The first is, what is the purpose of a university? The article focuses on the idea that universities are all about teaching, whereas, research also plays a major role in what universities (currently) do. If there were a “dramatic increase in the number of tenured university professors whose primary, if not exclusive duty is to teach undergraduates” then does it not follow that this means a decrease in the number of research active staff (unless of course this were accompanied by an increase in funding – yeah right).
This would likely result in a silo’ed approach to university staffing where staff are either researchers or teachers. Some universities already have a small number of academic staff who “only” do teaching and my impression is that these staff are often less well paid and treated than those involved in research.
The quality of teaching in the tertiary sector is something I have a great interest in. During my university days I had lecturers with a wide range of teaching styles stretching from excellent through to mediocre and some who were downright appalling. Unfortunately many of them, particularly at undergraduate level seemed to fall into the last two categories! (But that was over 20 years ago so hopefully things have changed since then).
Sometimes poor teaching styles have been blamed on the fact that some lecturers are so focused on their research that do do not invest enough time or effort in their teaching. While this is probably true in some cases, I think more often it is because they have not been taught HOW to teach. They may be experts in the content, but not in the delivery of such material in ways that will help teachers learn. Even those who are naturally good teachers will usually benefit by some training in how teach.
My view on how things should work in the tertiary sector, is that lecturers should be appointed based on the needs of the institution, and with proper consideration of what their strengths are. Those who excel at research should have positions which are largely research, perhaps providing lectures only at a more advanced level. Those whose skills lie in teaching should be provided with a career pathway where “only” teaching receives the same respect and remuneration as research. And for those who show an aptitude for both then a mix of teaching and research would be available. And all those involved in teaching should undergo some sort of training to maximize their effectiveness.
No doubt, this suggestion might be consider naive by some, particularly when university research is considered important in terms of funding (e.g. PBRF) and institutional kudos (e.g. international ranking of universities), however, this needs to be balanced by the fact that universities are also educational institutions and a good education is not served by surly lecturers who would rather be elsewhere or by those who have no understanding of how to teach.