The British government has recently changed the rules on university funding. At present, students pay no more than £3,000 per year for their tuition, with the rest of the roughly-£7500 it costs to teach one student being paid for by the state.
From next year, students will pay up to £9000 per year and the state will hardly pay anything. This was sold to the nation as a way to cut the budget deficit after the Recent Financial Unpleasantness, although it won’t achieve this for several years, if at all, because the government will loan students the money upfront and they’ll then gradually pay it back after they graduate.
However, another supposed benefit of the changes is that they’ll give universities an incentive to improve their teaching. Students, we’re told, will demand high quality teaching, now that they are the ones paying for it, and institutions which fail to provide this will lose out as students choose somewhere else.
Which is a cute little idea, and there may be a few people out there who actually believe it, but there’s one problem: universities don’t teach anyone, academics do. And academics have no incentive to teach well and, in most cases, no incentive to make sure that their university has a reputation for good teaching.
As an academic your career is research. The way you get a job, and a promotion, and grants and money and influence, is by publishing papers. You don’t get ahead by teaching well. Academics teach because it’s written into their university contract that they have to do a certain amount of teaching. Or in the case of junior academics who don’t have a lectureship yet, they teach because their salaries are low relative to the cost of getting the qualifications required (BSc + MSc + PhD = £££) and they need the money.
This doesn’t mean that all academics resent teaching, although sadly many do. Some are fine with it, and some enjoy it. Some, generally the latter ones, are extremely good at it. But even they have no incentive to be good at it or to improve their teaching. If it comes down to a choice between spending a week preparing a set of awesome lectures, or a week in the lab, the incentive is, by the nature of academic careers, always going to be towards research.
OK, but don’t researchers benefit from working at a prestigious university? Doesn’t that look good on your CV? Yes (although not as good as publications) but this doesn’t mean they have an incentive to make their university more prestigious – because in most cases it’s only “their” university for a few years at maximum.
Until you get to the level of tenured professor, if ever, you cannot assume that you’ll be working in the same place for very long. Many academics will go to one university for their undergraduate degrees, another for their masters, another for their doctorate, and then another two or three as junior faculty member before they “settle down” – and the majority don’t make it that far. And these are not uncommonly on different continents. Tenured professors are the only ones with a material interest in the future of their institution and they usually delegate their teaching anyway.
So what will the new fees changes achieve? They’ll give university managers an incentive to try to improve teaching but managers don’t teach. So they’ll try to get their academics to teach better – but it is very unclear that this is possible.
I think we’ll be seeing more “training courses”, “teaching support officers” and other managerial initiatives, along with ever-glossier marketing brochures, but whether this will achieve anything is doubtful. The essence of good teaching isn’t training, it’s motivation – you have to want to teach well. You have to be passionate about your subject, you have to care about your students, and you have to put in the hours.
So long as teaching doesn’t contribute to academic career prospects, many will see it as a burden and these training courses as yet another distraction from their research – and from their teaching too, in fact. Change the nature of academia so that publications aren’t everything and teaching is valued – then you’d improve teaching, and quite possibly research as well.