Modernising higher education – Let professors be teachers too

Not enough emphasis is placed on teaching as opposed to research in many of Europe’s top universities, concludes the European Union’s (EU) High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education. Its central recommendation is that by 2020 “all staff teaching in higher education institutions should have received certified pedagogical training”.

The group, headed by the former president of Ireland Mary McAleese and composed of a number of distinguished European academics plus the chair of Microsoft Corporation in Europe Jan Muehlfeit, makes 16 recommendations in support of its basic pitch that “teaching matters as much as research matters – we must put the quality of teaching and learning centre-stage”.

The European Commission, which commissioned the report last September, said it would “do all it can to support the implementation of these recommendations”.

Commissioner for Education Androulla Vassiliou said the recommendations were “timely, practical and do not necessarily require large amounts of additional expenditure”.

The role of teaching in defining academic merit needed a stronger emphasis and recognition, especially in career terms, said Vassiliou.

In many higher education institutions there was insufficient emphasis on teaching in comparison with research, even though both were core missions of higher education. “This needs rebalancing,” she said. “I very much welcome the proposal that all teachers in higher education should be taught how to teach.”

The report, Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Europe’s Higher Education Institutions, recommends that “public authorities responsible for higher education should ensure the existence of a sustainable, well-funded framework to support higher education institutions' efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning”.

It adds that “every institution should develop and implement a strategy for the support and ongoing improvement of the quality of teaching and learning, devoting the necessary level of human and financial resources to the task, and integrating this priority in its overall mission, giving teaching due parity with research”.

The profile of teaching should be raised by ensuring that academic staff entrance, progression and promotion decisions “take account of an assessment of teaching competence alongside other factors”.

A specific recommendation is that the EU “should support the establishment of a European academy for teaching and learning led by stakeholders, and inspired by the good practices reflected in this report”. Officials said it was too early to say how much this might cost and where it might be located.

The group also recommended that institutions develop and implement holistic internationalisation strategies as an integral part of their mission and functions.

The McAleese group, as part of its remit to find ways of improving higher education in the EU, will now turn its attention to how to maximise the impact of new methods of delivering quality higher education such as massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Report welcomed by universities

The European University Association (EUA), which made input into the group’s work, highlighted the call for mandatory certified training for academics, more focus on helping students to develop entrepreneurial and innovative skills, and the creation of a European Academy of Teaching and Learning.

EUA Secretary General Lesley Wilson said in a statement: “We welcome the publication of this report as it draws attention to issues that are crucial for Europe’s universities, their staff and students, and echoes many of the issues related to teaching and learning that have been or are currently being addressed by EUA through its different activities.”

The association said it had long underlined the importance of the professional development of teachers, and therefore hoped the EU would support the creation of a European Academy for Teaching and Learning, led by stakeholders.

The report also recommends that institutions and national policy-makers in partnership with students establish counselling, guidance, mentoring and tracking systems to support students into higher education, and on their way to graduation and beyond.

It cited the EUA-led TRACKIT project “as an example of an initiative that has surveyed tracking initiatives of students and graduates in Europe, and provides guidelines for higher education institutions which intend to develop or enhance tracking”.

The association stressed that developments in learning and teaching “should take into account the needs of different groups of learners including mature students, and also recent developments in learning provision (for example, the impact of new technologies)”.