Should lecturers and supervisors be required to have a teaching qualification?

Sean Canty is a first-year theologian at Corpus 26 April 2012

NUS President Liam Burns has called for new regulations requiring all university academics with teaching responsibilities to have a formal teaching qualification, saying that “personally, as a student, I don’t think it is that controversial for my teachers to be qualified to teach.” In 2010, the Browne Report on higher education called for similar measures which were never enforced. Can we assume that ability in one’s subject guarantees the ability to teach it? Or is it insulting to lecturers and supervisors to force them to jump through hoops?

Yes: Formal teaching qualifications would eradicate glitches in the system, says Morwenna Jones

If you needed brain surgery, would you allow an unqualified Doctor to operate on you? If you needed to build a bridge, would you hire someone without any engineering qualification? Or even if you needed to go somewhere by car, would you happily be driven by someone without a driving license? We live in a country reliant on qualifications, training and prerequisites. Yet we happily pay for the bright young minds of the future to be taught by post grads, researchers, and professors who – though they might have a PhD, a fellowship with the Royal Society and dozens of honorary degrees – have the social skills of a teaspoon.

Most worryingly, it appears that students aren’t getting what they pay for. As student demand for higher education soars (there were 50,000 more applications for undergraduate places at university this year than there were acceptances in 2011) universities face an increased demand for teaching. Rather than put extra strain on what, in an article for the Guardian, a Professor of philosophy at University College London calls ‘star faculty members,’ who are paid big salaries but have small teaching loads, universities prefer to resort to cheap and readily available postgraduate students. Bearing in mind that fees have soared this year to up to £9,000, it seems a high price to pay for second-rate, unqualified teaching. As Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, says, the increase in fees means that “people have much higher expectations. Not just students but parents, who will probably be much more active in criticizing what they perceive to be the deal.”

Yet, it is not only students who will benefit from clear teaching methods and getting their money’s worth, but also university staff with teaching responsibilities themselves, in particular postgraduate students. In the U.S, grad students are able to fully fund their studies by teaching, and as a result further studies are considered a legitimate career choice. American grad students are regarded as ‘junior colleagues,’ and are prominent departmental figures for undergraduate students. In the UK on the other hand, postgraduate students are still regarded as unable to find a real job and as having never really left university. Ensuring that all future university teaching staff have a valid teaching qualification will give added prominence to their status within their academic communities, as well as enabling them to receive the level of payment received by their American counterparts.

But surely we should be willing to sacrifice a mere certificate in favour of learning from the experience and knowledge of the intellectual elite? One could argue that a teaching qualification would reduce Professors and Supervisors alike to schoolteachers, changing the university experience to a world of ‘assessment objectives,’ and coerced thinking – admittedly, this is a potential risk. However, consider the copious advantages that may also be gained. No more supervisions where the supervisor may as well be speaking Icelandic, no more (probably unread) essays marked with one word criticisms, and no more lecturers rambling on at the speed of light, having decided that, rather than comply with the Notes on Courses, they’re going to give an unplanned lecture on something completely different, irrelevant and way beyond the understanding of their trapped students.

At the end of the day, it depends what you want from university. Teachers are trained to help candidates meet targets and achieve aims whilst academics want to encourage interest and knowledge. It seems that with a teaching qualification, degree-laden academics might be able impart true understanding, as well as thought-provoking ideas and philosophies and help students meet their full potential. In an ideal world, expertise in a topic would indeed easily translate into the ability to help other reach the same level of proficiency. However, in reality, sometimes even the best of us need a little help or structure.

Morwenna Jones is a first-year English student at Murray Edwards

No: At university level, the teaching skills required are inherent in academic ability, argues Sean Canty

Supervisors at university level are experts in the field they teach, with the qualifications to prove it. Their expertise makes them better equipped to supervise an undergraduate’s learning and make them avoid the mistakes that halt progress in that field of study. Is this really the case?

First of all, I make no apologies for arguing from an ‘arts’ point of view; I’m sure the ‘sciences’ are different in crucial ways, and learning a science requires a very different kind of supervisor. The ‘arts’ are ideas-based, and the ‘sciences’ are aptitude-based, so I am going to argue from an ideas-based-learning perspective.

So, one might argue that supervisors are teachers and they therefore need to prove their skill at teaching. They need to pass exams, proving that they are suited to the task. There are supervisors who believe that their academic reputation alone will convince an undergrad that they have had a rewarding supervision with a venerable sage. Not so, you might respond. Academic credentials are one thing, but skill at teaching – communication – is another. The most brilliant and rational minds can have trouble communicating. I do not, however, believe that a university’s staff list is built despite that barrier. Communication is essential to the academic life.

What makes a good supervision? You argue your case, based on what you know, and you get feedback. In fact, in a good supervision you hope to leave your essay far behind and come up with fresh ideas, challenged by the failings of the old. You subsequently have your ideas challenged from every possible angle, and every conceivable angle. Vaguely speaking, ideas come and go, and the foundations of knowledge are built. The best supervisions are dialogues. Learning happens in these dialogues. These dialogues are also the staple of the daily lives of academic experts, the ones we hope to teach us. Dialogue with other thinkers is what their profession is all about.

So, there are different types of learning, and I think we have flagged up two here. Critical thinking needs to be taken as given at this level of dialogue, but not at every level, which is why people train in PGCEs to deliver the essential equipment to those hoping to study at higher and higher levels. They do an admirable job.

However, the type of learning which happens in dialogues is different to critical thinking. It involves more than exploring the strengths and, primarily, the weaknesses in any idea, and any solution to problems. Critical thinking is a mere tool to those who work in any field, and an ancient one. It should be taken for granted in the one-on-one supervisions given by field-leading academics in top universities.

What one values in a good supervisor is that critical subjective judgement, matched with penetrating knowledge of the subject at hand. Good supervisors and good students are well-versed in argumentation and have a keen eye for fallacies. This is the type of uniform skill that one acquires from a teacher, but this is the limit to the uniformity. Progressive research is not about uniformity. There is an obvious but limited place for uniformity – shared opinions – in the dialogue between a supervisor and student.

Beyond the essential equipment, uniformity is not always to be treasured. No teaching qualification can demonstrate an expert’s long-term ability to subvert accepted ideas and to deliver factually-informed revelations. Universities cannot be expected to produce completely uniform students, one year to the next, and they do not need uniform supervisors. Dialogue is the only qualification, and academics do not just have natural flair for it, they use it daily.

Sean Canty is a first-year theologian at Corpus