How Not To Improve University Teaching

By Neuroskeptic | March 9, 2011 8:48 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: politics, science
  • JRQ

    In the US at least there are thousands of academics on the tenure track who certainly do have teaching as a moderate-to-substantial part of tenure requirements…they just aren't employed at the major research universities. Is there a UK-equivalent to the US regional public university? These are usually 4-year (a good example would be University of Minnesota, Morris, where PZ Myers of Pharyngula is) or masters-granting institutions, but some have PhD. programs as well. The research-teaching balance at these places varies widely, and runs the full spectrum from mostly-teaching/a-little-research to mostly-research/a-little-teaching, but nearly all of them value teaching more than what you are describing — and they also employ many more academics in the US than is commonly realized.

  • Sergei

    As a graduate student, an applied practitioner, and an occasional lecturer in the field of my specialty, all combined in one, I believe that there are two main goals that any competent teaching process should pursue:
    1) teaching must be an incentive, a motivational process fostering students desire to be involved in the learning process within the subject (that he or she will actually enjoy the subject, will attend lectures with pleasure, maybe even read an additional literature).
    2) teaching must promote critical thinking. A teacher should not overwhelm the students with a pleathora of must-know knowledge, but instead help to understand why that knowledge is important, what one should do with the knowledge gained (and not in the sense of “a how-to-do manual”) and so forth.

    Sadly, as Neuroskeptic said it, many researchers want to research, not to teach. Many are basically forced in the latter (e.g. a tenured professor asks his junior researcher to give a lecture). But the lads conference paper is due next week, less time with his gf, the mother complains that he has forgotten about her… So, here, the first goal of teaching is diminished. How can be a student interested in the matter if a lecturer is not? Also, in order to achieve the second goal, a teacher must be competent and well-organized generally in his field – which, sadly, cannot be confirmed about many junior researchers and PhD students.

  • Sergei

    Now, to the topic.

    The claim that tuition fee will add some quality to the teaching, is plagued by the fact that although prospect students will truly become more picky where to study at and so on, few will actually know what a quality teaching is. They will find out about how they were served only much later, a year or two down the studies. Since the refund policy will have an insurance against these kind of dropouts with claims for the refund, many will rationalize their pros and cons and will carry on with the studies. Unhappy and grudgy.

    I am more concerned about an idea that instead of actually creating better teaching conditions, universities will invest that money into commercial campaigns, to attract prospect students (as a future source of partial income).

  • Neuroskeptic

    Sergei: I think that's a real worry. But the more I think about it… there's a fundamental flaw in the whole idea – it assumes that universities want to grow bigger and recruit more students.

    Why would they? Universities are oversubscribed as it is – the top ones turn away the vast majority of applicants – why would they want more? Every student you add means you have to spend more on teaching.

    I don't know how managers see it, but I can't think of any academics who go around thinking “I wish we had 25% more undergrads.” Frankly I think a lot of people would be pleased if there were fewer – it would mean more time for research.

    The only reason a university would want more students would be if they actually made a profit on each student which they could invest in research, infrastructure etc. If they were charging £15000 per student that might work but with a cap of £9000 they cannot make a meaningful profit. If you're not making a profit, just breaking even, why would you want more customers?

  • Anonymous

    Two brief points: this applies to England and Wales, not Britain (Scotland has a separate government and funding council); some universties appoint “university teachers” who are employed only to teach, so they have no research to distract them.

  • Anonymous

    As a tenure-track Assistant Professor at a large Private university in the US that charges $45,000 per year in tuition, I must agree that charging more money will not improve teaching. To the contrary, it encourages student entitlement, which typically translates into an increased student demand for more entertainment in the classroom. My colleauges call it “edu-tainment.” The university does try to encourage better teaching, but the only measure of teaching quality it uses are student evaluations (which is simply lazy on the part of the administration). Student ratings are well known to be biased by factors such as gender, attractiveness, extroversion, etc. Add the fact that students often use evaluations to punish teachers who expect them to work hard and don't give everyone in the class an A, and you can imagine how such a system actully discourages the very thing it is supposed to encourage. When students are the o es demanding and setting the standards for what is good teaching, teaching suffers.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous 9th March: You're right that this only applies to England, though I suspect Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland will be forced to go the same way in a few years.

    There are teaching-focussed academic posts in Britain but in my experience they're uncommon. I don't know if this is just because I have limited experience of universities though.

    Anonymous 10th March: Right. This is another kettle of fish but equally worrying.

    One of the risks is grade inflation. At the moment after doing a British degree you end up with a grade: 1st, 2/1, 2/2 and 3rd. or fail.

    Pretty much A, B, C, D, F.

    Now in theory a 1st from any university is equivalent to a 1st from any other. In fact a 1st from Oxford has a much better reputation than a 1st from somewhere minor, but it's still largely true and a lot of jobs for example will demand someone with “a 2/1 or better” – from anywhere.

    Now if you're a student shopping for a university you're going to be looking closely at the number of 1st and 2/1s they hand out, and picking the place where your chances are best.

  • Chris

    How to create a real incentive for teaching? I am afraid this situation is known everywhere. Some resolve the balance by linking research with teaching (see Nadelhoffer & Nahmias 2008 paper on “Polling as pedagogy: Experimental philosophy as a Valuable Tool for Teaching Philosophy”, in Teaching Philosophy, 31:1, March 2008, 39-58), but it is not always possible.

  • Sergei

    Neuroskeptic, good point.

    However, there is another side of the coin. The fenoment of the 21st century called “mass university” affects the teaching process. Instead of specialized seminars and workshops, undergraduate students are basically attuned to massive lectures. This idea actually fits very well any bureaucratic managers point of view: “we produce quality by quantity!” – which is a very naive definition of quality: not the conditions and terms of how to grant a degree, but how many have graduated (how many… etc). And makes big $$$ too.

    This mass disaster can only be avoided by two conditions: private institution with insanely high tuition fee (well, $45.000 is just about it) or well-organized social capital consisting of call kind of trustees connected to a huge private research sector and so forth. Normal public unis do not have this privelege.

    The fenomen of mass university has yet another very destructive consequence. The more students enter any university, the lower the general IQ of the student population. Which, yet again, influences the quality of education. The prime example is textbooks. A textbook on introductory to psychology written 40 years ago is pretty hard to read compared to the nowadays Gleitmans Psychology (or whatever). Textbooks are great business. No one will buy what they cant understand…

  • Anonymous

    “Is there a UK-equivalent to the US regional public university?”

    Yes, lots. Most of them were formerly Polytechnics, and the Polytechnics were made up from former technical colleges, art colleges and teacher training colleges.

    I would estimate that these local universities are 90% teaching, 10% research – although they probably claim to be doing more research, because it looks good. Lecturers rise up the ladder by the usual political manoeuvring.

    Successfully starting and running new modules or courses that bring in students can help in promotion.

    Don Cox

  • Anonymous

    I posted a comment but it has vanished. Why??


  • Neuroskeptic

    Spam filter… Will fix it asap

  • Neuroskeptic

    Yeah it was caught in the spam filter. I have no idea why… it didn't even have any links (which is what usually sets it off). Sorry!

  • FrauTech

    The idea that students who pay for education will have a stronger incentive to push good teaching or a good education is what gets me. I went from having my school paid for, to paying for it out of my own pocket and paying a lot more than I had been. Let me tell me my motivations were influenced by a lot of things but generally not pay. Yeah I was dissatisfied with really rock-bottom teaching and professors who were dead wood and avoided students, but that was pretty rare. In most cases the more demanding professors were actually harder on me as I was working to pay for this tuition (as might be future students asked to shell out 3x as much) and so even though I knew a more demanding class would teach me more, my self interest in the degree and credential meant that wasn't exactly a priority for me.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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