To be or not to be accredited... the question is academic

Expensive, bureaucratic and suffering from an image problem: the Institute for Learning and Teaching has had a bad start. Lucy Hodges asks if it can recover
Click to follow

So, Margaret Hodge, the new minister in charge of universities, was able to get away with writing only one essay in three years at her alma mater, the London School of Economics. And she was off sick for six months without anyone noticing. What does that say about the LSE's lecturers?

Clearly, the academics didn't keep an attendance register. Nor did they see their role as prodding undergraduates to do some work. Would students be able to get away with such sloth now? One has the nagging suspicion they might.

But Ms Hodge is a reformed woman. Nowadays, she works hard and expects public services to deliver. Universities will be required to demonstrate that taxpayers' money is being spent properly and academics to show that they are doing a good job.

That is why Ms Hodge is likely to take the same line as her predecessor, Baroness Blackstone, on the new Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT), whose annual conference takes place today in York, and be in favour of it. Next week she presents the 20 recipients of the National Teaching Fellowships (run by the ILT) with awards for their teaching.

Set up two years ago at the prompting of Lord Dearing's inquiry into higher education, the institute serves as an accrediting body for lecturers. The idea is that it should set standards for the profession in the same way as the General Medical Council does for doctors and the General Teaching Council does for teachers. If they fill out a form, write five 500-word essays on their teaching, produce two references and pay a fee of £75 a year, academics can join up - though there is not compulsion as there is with the GMC and GTC..

"The institute is there to improve the standards of teaching and learning by improving the professionalism and status of staff," says Sir Kenneth Calman, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University and former Chief Medical Officer, who is the new chairman of the ILT. "It benefits students and staff. Every other professional group has something like it to demonstrate to the public what it's about."

Another point in its favour is that it promotes the status of teaching in a profession that regards teaching as a sideshow. The real business of being an academic is research, so one could argue that anything which rights the balance is a good thing. The majority of lecturers don't have a teaching qualification. The ILT lays on training and updating programmes and encourages its members to think of themselves as teachers.

Not everyone is persuaded of its merits, however. In fact the Association of University Teachers which represents lecturers in the old universities has been positively antagonistic. A radical motion at last winter's council meeting to withdraw from the institute was defeated by just six votes. Instead the union voted to look at setting up a rival accreditation organisation and decided to stop recommending to members that they join the ILT.

Association members complain that the institute is over-bureaucratic and that the membership fee is too high. Like other critics they claim the ILT has a public relations problem and is not well enough known.

"The real problem the institute is facing is that it isn't clear what it's accrediting and why," says Gillian Howie, an AUT executive member who teachers philosophy at Liverpool University. "Academics do different jobs. Only some of us teach. If the government is concerned that university teaching is not good enough it should provide training, but the ILT doesn't do that."

Everyone is agreed that the organisation has got off to a slow start. Only 5,000 of the available 100,000 academics have joined. Sir Kenneth says that it is meeting its targets and never envisaged signing up more people at this stage. The critics say 5,000 is not enough.

Universities and colleges of higher education have differing views about its value. Some, such as Southampton Institute, are recommending their staff to join and are even paying their membership fee; others, such as Warwick University, are staying silent.

Susan Bassnett, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Warwick, believes the ILT does not have the full confidence of the academic community. The £75 fee is too high, she says, higher than the fee charged by most professional associations. "Most academics ask what they are going to get for their money. I don't think the institute has done a sufficient job of selling to academics what the material advantages are of becoming accredited."

Warwick offers its own training to its lecturers. It has a centre for academic practice and its own teaching certificate for staff. Why does it need the ILT, she asks.

Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute and former chief executive of the now defunct Higher Education Quality Council, gives the institute more of an endorsement, albeit a lukewarm one. "It's beginning to make a bit of progress after a pretty sticky start," he says. "It's the route to improved competition but I think it will take a long time to prove to people that this is the way to go."

In six months the AUT's line on the institute has softened. Observers say the shift is due to a realisation by the AUT's leaders that it would be difficult to set up a rival accrediting body and that, in any case, the role of a trade union can conflict with that of a professional association. The AUT has therefore decided to have a debate with its members first on whether it is a good idea for lecturers to be accredited.

"It's become very clear to us that a large section of our membership is still not convinced about the value of professional accreditation in principle," explains Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary. "That's why we have decided to run a debate with our members during next term to get back to the basic issue. Is this something that they want and that they think will be of value to them or not?"

In particular, the AUT headquarters is keen to turn the debate away from a focus on the Institute for Learning and Teaching. Last month it posted a discussion paper on its website saying that the ground had to be prepared thoroughly before an alternative accreditation system could be launched. The target date for setting up a new system is October next year. During next term, members will be consulted widely at local meetings and invited to write in.

The other lecturers' union, Natfhe (National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education) has had similar debates but takes a different line. Its members have voted three to one in favour of sticking with the ILT. Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities department, says it would help if the institute adopted a two-tier membership fee so that part-timers could join at a reduced rate (this is something the ILT is now considering). He also criticises the institute for a failure to market itself adequately.

But in the end academics have only themselves to blame if the ILT fails, he believes. It will be strong and useful if lecturers join it and use it. "The more people sign up the more resources it will have and the more clout it will wield," says Mr Wilson. "It's a question of asking not what the ILT can do for you but what you can do for the ILT."

In the end it's impossible to escape the conclusion that academics are fed up with the institute because they feel overburdened with initiatives requiring them to account for themselves. First there was the research assessment exercise, then the teaching quality assurance exercises and now the Institute for Teaching and Learning. It doesn't seem to matter that signing up to the ILT is voluntary. Academics complain that they are under pressure from their departmental heads to join. It is simply another external mechanism that they feel is being thrust down their throats.

Why the AUT has taken such an antagonistic line mystifies some observers. One reason may be that its members, belonging as they do mainly to old universities (unlike teh members of Natfhe), see themselves as researchers rather than teachers. Another may be that the institute has become a scapegoat. The union decided against any militant action on pay. Maybe its radicals had to find something else on which to vent their frustrations.