Should all lecturers have to have a teaching certificate?

As part of its tertiary education reform, the government of Ghana has proposed a policy that mandates that all tertiary education institution lecturers must possess a postgraduate teaching certificate before they are eligible to teach. A draft of the proposed policy was approved by the government in May but is still pending parliamentary approval.

According to the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE), the rationale for the compulsory postgraduate teaching certificate policy for lecturers is to improve teaching. The NCTE argues that having a mastery of specialist knowledge does not imply that a lecturer knows the techniques needed to effectively communicate that knowledge to students. In other words, PhD holders in particular fields of knowledge are not necessarily experts at teaching.

While this argument has a ring of empirical truth, it is still ambiguous about the type of improvement in teaching needed in the tertiary sector.

Though teaching is a series of activities aimed at facilitating or enhancing learning, there are many aspects of teaching. There is subject matter knowledge, assessment and evaluation, communication and interaction and knowledge of students, including their learning styles and preferences, course design and lesson planning. Which aspects of teaching need improvement in the tertiary sector? How do we know?

We want to emphasise that before determining the types of improvement in teaching that are needed in the tertiary sector, it is critical to have data about the current state of teaching at that level. What is the precise problem with teaching in the tertiary sector? Is it about lack of teaching skills or teaching resources? What kind of skills are we talking about? How do we know?

It is dangerous to guess, speculate or use anecdotal evidence to define the state of teaching in the sector in the absence of concrete, comprehensive data about the state of teaching in the tertiary sector.

How can policy-makers prescribe a postgraduate teaching certificate as the solution to a problem for which they have no data? Perhaps the problem could be effectively addressed through a professional development programme or other means than a postgraduate teaching certificate.

Without concrete data about the state of teaching, another problem is how to assess the effectiveness of the proposed policy once it has been rolled out. Hence, it is vital that policy-makers focus on evidence-based policy development. This means ensuring policy decisions are vigorously informed by objective data rather than being unduly influenced by ideology, speculation, prejudice or whims.

Evidence in this broader sense includes peer-reviewed academic research, professional experience, stakeholder accounts, and government evaluation. It has been proven empirically that an evidence-based approach leads to more beneficial outcomes for society in general than other approaches.

International best practice

The NCTE also argues that the new policy conforms with best international practice. What is meant by and who defines ‘best international practice’? It could mean that most countries have adopted the policy, but this is not so in this case. It could also mean that a group of nation states have endorsed this policy.

Many internationally renowned universities around the globe have not adopted this policy. A scan of the available literature indicates that formal accredited courses for higher education teaching are a relatively recent phenomenon.

However, courses in higher education studies relating to administration, pedagogy and public policy have been offered by United States institutions since the 1890s. In Australia, the pioneer example of training for university teaching was the graduate diploma of tertiary education at the University of Southern Queensland in the late 1970s. In 1991, the University of New South Wales also developed a graduate certificate in tertiary teaching.

In the United Kingdom, the Staff and Educational Development Association developed a scheme for the initial accreditation of teachers in higher education in 1990. The demand for accredited higher education teaching courses in the UK increased following the 1997 Dearing Report, which recommended formal teaching qualifications for university lecturers. By 2007, the UK Higher Education Academy had accredited 168 courses as appropriate for professional development in higher education learning and teaching.

Six conclusions may be drawn from the literature review:

  • • A pre-service training or education programme before beginning teaching in universities is a rarity. Normally, university lecturers are hired first before they undertake professional development courses which include – depending on their previous experiences – teaching and assessment skills, learning styles and counselling.

  • • A postgraduate certificate in teaching may introduce new lecturers to teaching in a higher education environment, course design principles and strategies, student assessment and learning growth, but it is not a compulsory requirement for teaching in higher education institutions.

  • • There are different types of postgraduate teaching certificate that universities offer around the globe.

  • • New lecturers may benefit more from a postgraduate certificate in teaching than long-serving lecturers.

  • • Continuous professional development has an impact on teaching, learning and student outcomes.

  • • Lecturers, whether newly hired or long serving, are not a homogeneous group. A postgraduate teaching certificate programme with a great degree of individualisation has a greater prospect of meeting lecturers’ need for relevance and efficacy than a generic postgraduate teaching certificate.

Diversity of tertiary education

In Ghana, tertiary education can be divided into three categories. The first is made up of universities. These institutions award diplomas, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The second consists of polytechnics which can best be described as a cluster of career-focused colleges under one centralised administration. This is because of their singular concentration on developing students’ career knowledge, skills and dispositions according to their areas of interest.

The last category comprises individual colleges such as colleges of education, nursing, agriculture and communication that focus on training human resources for a specific profession and industry.

The question is: which of the tertiary institutions is the policy requiring their lecturers to possess a postgraduate teaching certificate before they are eligible for teaching aimed at? Does it apply to all university instructors or only those with the title lecturer? What about lecturers who have been teaching for five or more years?

Different types of teaching

The NCTE has indicated that it will accept postgraduate teaching certificates from outside Ghana. However, it has to compile a list of universities whose postgraduate teaching certificates are in line with the purposes for which they are needed in Ghana. But since the purpose of the proposed policy has not been explicitly stated, it remains to be shown how this could be done.

In Australia and New Zealand, for example, postgraduate certificates/diplomas are equal to an honours undergraduate degree. In the United States and Canada, postgraduate certificates/diplomas in teaching could be equivalent to a bachelor degree in education. Similarly, a masters degree in adult education, special education, mathematics and second language instruction are all part of the postgraduate teaching certificate family.

Most of these postgraduate diplomas or degrees may not necessarily have a practising teaching component. Consequently, the Ghanaian government’s proposed policy requiring lecturers to have a postgraduate teaching certificate before they are eligible for teaching in higher education needs more detail.

In conclusion, we want to emphasise that the postgraduate teaching certificate policy needs further analysis to address any gaps and ensure successful implementation.

Lecturers who have been teaching for three or more years should be exempted from the policy. Instead, each higher education institution should have a professional development programme that allows its three years-plus serving lecturers, professors and other instructors to acquire or renew the skills and knowledge they need for teaching.

It should be noted that teaching effectiveness occurs through practice, reflection and monitoring of student learning growth and outcomes. Even a master teacher works constantly to improve his or her practice.

Fidelia Fredua-Kwarteng works in government in Canada, as a senior programme advisor. Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a policy consultant in Canada.