Is academic professionalism adequate?

“Over the past two decades, there has been a serious diminution in professionalism as we are
compelled more and more to complete accountability/kpi measures, as if jumping over ‘productivity’
hurdles could substitute for professional ethics.”

– quote from an academic, p.24 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

Overall, 37.3 per cent of academics have never undertaken training in university teaching,
and 72.1 per cent indicate that training is not mandatory in their institution.

– report of survey research, p. 25 of the Australian Academic Profession in Transition report.

As this report makes clear, collecting data and filling in forms – administrivia, as Conrad calls it – is the bane of academic life. I’m quite prepared to believe that some of it is unnecessary and much of the rest could be delegated to administrative staff.

But I am much less prepared to believe that we can put our faith in the ‘professionalism’ of academics. Quite clearly in my view, academia failed to develop a proper professional ethos around teaching. Though things have improved in the last 20 years, still a very large minority of academics have not undertaken any training in one of the key tasks of their occupation. The previously abysmal results recorded in the survey sent to completing students are now reasonable though not great.

Until the norms of good teaching practice are internalised in the academic profession, external pressures to protect and promote student interests are necessary.

  1. I don’t disagree in theory, but in practice pretty much none of the administration that I do has anything to do with internalising the norms of good teaching practice.

  2. I agree with Martin. As far as I can tell, none of the administrivia I get has to do with good teaching (and I work at a place that gets 5 out of 5 for it on the Good University’s Guide, and in a faculty that scores comparatively well). The only thing that correlates with it is the student expererience survey. However that has lots of negative consequences and is very easy to cheat.

    Also, as you’ve noted before, students don’t select on teaching quality anyway (Melbourne got 1 out of 5 for it (or was it 2?) but it is the most popular university in Vic), and as anyone can tell you that has done them, the teaching qualification university teachers get are waste of time — many of the problems I and everyone else deals with and waste so much time should be trivial but arn’t (e.g., rooms with microphones that work, timetables, getting software you need without it taking 4 years, getting IT support for anything, having to deal with every single aspect of everything in running courses yourself…), and these are really things that only management can fix. Even if I could apply what I learnt about “learning spaces”, “internationalization of the curriculum”, and all the hyperbole, for example, it would be the last of my problems. Given this, I’m not sure what external pressures are going to work?

    There are two other very rarely mentioned problems which are essentially impossible to solve. One is that you’d expect a drop in the standard of everything, since university careers now pay less and are less attractive than many years ago (same problem as other types of teaching). Thus the fact that people are less dedidicated to all aspects of their job is no surprise (including the army of casuals). A second is that large numbers of staff are getting old, and simply don’t have the capacity to do such a good job as they used to do or simply don’t care as much. I don’t see what you will do with them apart from wait them out (especially because many will be hard to replace).

  3. I’m not sure whether teaching norms are being internalised; I doubt it which is why external pressure is needed.

    I think the student surveys have prompted far more attention to the quality of teaching. While I have not seen any rigorous study of the effectiveness of uni teacher training, the survey linked above found about two-thirds of those who had done the training found it ‘useful’.

    A mix of shame and promotion implications has I think prompted academics to do better (though I once heard someone at U of M say that the biggest driver of improved results was more quickly getting bad teachers out of classrooms – so fewer very low results rather than large numbers of marginal improvements were most important in pushing up the average).

    I am not excusing bad management, but I think if the external pressures on teaching were lifted academics would downgrade teaching.

    BTW, U of M is the 4th most popular uni in Victoria by undergrad applications: Monash, RMIT, Deakin, Melbourne (though Deakin only slightly ahead).

  4. Andrew — I just don’t see what external pressures there really are that actually improve quality. You keep on saying that the surveys have been good, and that may be true in terms of happyness, but they’re one of the big factors in why people dumb down courses, don’t innovate, and let students get away with anything (plagiarism, lateness etc. — why catch someone if you know you will get a bad rating for it?). I also doubt most people within university management would really care if you taught courses about the Tellytubbies if students wanted to do it and it brought in money (I’ve never heard “are you teaching something useful” from management, but I’ve heard “what courses wiill attract students” a thousand times). Indeed I know this from a question asked of our former VC (now at ANU) if his response was correct, as someone who came from the CSIRO and obviously wasn’t used to the current system asked something like:”Have you ever considered what courses would teach students skills needed in the job market”, and his answer was:”I don’t think that’s ever been brought up in the meeting of VCs.

    So I think you need to distinguish between making students happy and people actually doing a good job teaching. I don’t know any real external pressures there are for the latter of these.

  5. Conrad – Until we get measures of learning comparable across time and institutions we will never have a solid basis for measuring the effectiveness of teaching. But I don’t think the questions I am looking at on level of feedback on work, clarity of explanations etc at a whole of degree level are likely to be very prone to the issues you mention.

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