How good is the teaching at universities?

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So it was 6th form open evening the other night, and I was standing in my room with all my helpers talking to parents and students about my three subjects. One family were there with their youngest, and I asked after their eldest, a former student of mine. This particular student had studied film with me, fallen in love with the subject, and then gone off to further study at University.

Only it turns out that the lecturers weren’t very good, had made the subject seem dull, and so my former student had switched courses. Now doing something to do with horses.

Of course, this kind of thing happens all the time. People chop and change, realise they’ve made a mistake. But this isn’t the first time that I’ve heard reports that something that seemed exciting and full of possibility at ‘A’ level ends up being despair and drudgery at university.

It made me wonder how teaching quality is assessed at universities. I would never wish an Ofsted on anybody, of course, but my memories of university are that the obsession was with the research rating, upon which research funding depends. Now, there’s a difference between the kind of research that might transform lives (cold fusion, bionic eyes) and the kind that I did in writing my PhD. Sure, I said some interesting things about Don Delillo, but like most research in the arts and humanities, it was basically a load of old wank. Engagingly written and very interesting wank, but wank nevertheless.

So university departments are obsessed with their research rating, and put pressure on their staff to publish or perish. This, more than anything, is what put me off a career in university teaching after my PhD. I honestly didn’t care. I know my own writing was clearer and better than many other PhD students, but I didn’t think I needed to be pushing out a book or four articles every year.

I think most universities have self-regulation when it comes to teaching quality. If only schools were allowed the same luxury! But there are more schools than universities, with more students and more teachers, so it would be complicated to be consistent.

Anyway, I remember some shockingly bad teaching during my university studies. Both at BA and MA. Boring sessions. Uninspiring lecturers on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Restless, confused students. There were also, of course, examples of the opposite. Packed lecture theatres, charismatic teachers with enthused and inspired students. But it seems odd, very odd, to me that the crappy/weak teacher who publishes four articles per year is more secure in a job than the inspiring teacher who perhaps doesn’t have the time to churn it out because more students sign up to that particular course.

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