Far more skills, far less knowledge

Assembly-line teacher training for all university lecturers, proposed by the Dearing Committee, will accelerate the transformation of higher education into further education, argues Frank Furedi
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The Independent Online
The recently published Dearing Report, "Higher Education in the Learning Society", has been widely acclaimed by the education industry and the media. There have been a few grumbles about the introduction of student fees but a resounding silence about the report's philosophy towards education in the university sector.

This is somewhat surprising since the adoption of this report's approach towards teaching will inevitably diminish the quality of university education. "Higher Education in the Learning Society" formalises the already far too prevalent trend of separating teaching from research. It seeks to transform university teaching into a technical skill that can be quantified and assessed on the bases of predictable outcomes. From this perspective, teaching becomes less the communication of subject-based knowledge than the imparting of skills.

The report represents the triumph of bureaucratic formulaic teaching and will accelerate the transformation of Higher Education into Further Education. Paradoxically, the Dearing Report claims to promote the objective of "world-class higher education teaching". It continually emphasises the need to maintain "quality and standards". Many of the report's proposals are justified on the ground that they will ensure that the expansion of student numbers will "not be at the cost of lowering the standards" required for degrees.

One of the principal proposals of the report to meet the demand of the "new working patterns" implied by the expansion of higher education is the promotion of teacher training and staff development activities. Instead of addressing the problem of the reduction in contact time between university teachers and their students - (an issue not even identified as a problem) - the report opts for an assembly-line method of teaching. The report argues that all permanent staff with teaching responsibilities should be trained on accredited programmes. Teacher training will no longer be an option. All new, full-time academic staff will now be "required to achieve at least associate membership" of a soon to be established Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, as a condition for "the successful completion of their probation".

The report demands that universities embrace enthusiastically the cause of teacher training and poses the "accreditation of teaching staff" as an urgent priority.

Many commentators have welcomed the report's emphasis on teacher training. Some experts have long argued that the absence of such a compulsory system of accreditation left confused students at the mercy of incompetent academics. Employers have added their voice and criticised academics for their inability to train students for the world of work. And some students have argued that university teachers have not trained them properly for life. Often such criticisms are not so much about the quality of academic teaching as such but about a type of education that is not directly pragmatic and vocationally oriented. That Dearing endorses this standpoint is indicated by the report's continuous reference to a need to integrate careers guidance into academic education.

There is little doubt that university education is uneven. Some of us are less than effective communicators. Many of us fall into routine and fail to inspire and stimulate our students. No doubt we all have a lot to learn about how to become more effective educators. But the standardisation of teacher training will do little to improve matters. On the contrary, it threatens to damage the most creative dynamic in the student-teacher relationship in higher education.

The close association between research and teaching has been a critical ingredient to sound university education in the past. Knowledge about a discipline, and involvement in research did not guarantee that academics were necessarily good teachers. Nevertheless, academic passion - even about obscure subjects - ensured that in one way or another, knowledge was transmitted in the classroom. Research-based teaching presupposes an interactive relationship with students. Such teaching does not rely merely on imparting information but on the transmission of the kind of knowledge that could stimulate students to work out their own ideas. Such research-based knowledge can not be standardised. It is interactive, subjective and relies on provoking interest in the subject matter. It is not susceptible to generating any observable outcomes. Research-based teaching involves much more than the provision of the facts offered in the now fashionable lecture notes. It aspires to helping students to gain the habit of independence of thought and a grasp of the essence of their subject matter.

The training of the mind is recognised by Dearing as a worthwhile objective. But by insisting that such training should be linked to a vocational orientation, an unsatisfactory hybrid is likely to emerge. And since independence of thought cannot be taught to an externally imposed formula, intellectual content is bound to suffer.

Sometimes it is argued that in today's climate, it is not possible or even desirable to maintain research-related teaching. If that is true than we should acknowledge that university education will become fundamentally transformed. It will no longer be about intellectual excellence but about the provision of vocational skills. In that case the "quality" that will be assured will be different to those that have characterised university education in the past.

The qualities and practices advocated by Dearing have more in common with those that prevail in schools than in academia. This may be a pragmatic way of teaching an ever-expanding number of students - but what students will receive will not be a university education.

At best the effect of these proposals will be to limit the worst practices in university teaching - but it will be at the expense of eroding the kind of education that aspired to excellence. The bureaucratisation of university teaching will lead to the predictability of outcomes but at the expense of creativity. Sadly, such education delivered to a formula will offer students more "skills" but far less knowledgen

The writer is a sociologist at the University of Kent. The views expressed above do not reflect any of the institutions to which he is officially affiliated. e-mail: F.Furedi@ukc.ac.uk