On the status of education

At the most reputable American universities, education and teaching have high status. It is prestigious to meet the students the first year, and it is often the most prominent researchers who get that chance. The professors have great freedom in their research, but when it comes to the teaching assignment, they have less of a choice. You do your job and you do it well. Otherwise you will hear it from your Department Head or Dean. Perhaps there will be a new teaching assignment next year, just for you to “learn the topic”. Course evaluations and even personal ratings are made publicly available.

In Sweden, the situation is different. Our system of shrinking education grants (there is an annual “productivity deduction”!), limited research funding but relatively good opportunities for external grants, leads to a different balance. The researcher who does not produce his X articles per year and bring in her or his fair share of research funding is not highly esteemed by the management. Yet it may be the best teacher at the department. It is not difficult to understand how this has happened, but it is equally well a great danger for a higher education institution.

Of course, I’m not talking about BTH; 2/3 of our business is education so it should be clear what is most important? Or? Unfortunately, I sometimes hear that we tend to suffer from the same phenomenon. Maybe we contribute to it ourselves through our way of managing and evaluating the activities. For the department, it is not only worthwhile to publish and secure external contracts, but also good course evaluations count. But that doesn’t seem to be enough. We have introduced career steps based on pedagogical qualifications, but so far it has not been successful. We talk a lot about research links to education, and in this context it is relevant to look at the proportion of teachers with a doctoral degree. It should be obvious that this is not about the quality of education, but just indicates the education-to-research link. It is also clear that teachers without a Ph.D. contribute equally much to the quality of education.

What are the risks in the short and long term if teaching is valued less than research? In the short term, I believe that it contributes to dividing the teaching staff into A and B teams. It creates a worse working environment and probably reduced overall performance. There is also a risk of losing students. If they get the impression that their education is not the most important thing at the university, it affects both performance and recruitment. In the longer term, this leads to a reduced quality of teaching, partly because teachers stagnate and partly because we do not put enough weight to pedagogical skills in recruits. In the long run, this will make it increasingly difficult for us to recruit students and perhaps even lower status for education.

But what should we do to reverse the trend? Unfortunately, I recognize the phenomenon too well from other Swedish universities. There is probably no easy fix. But talking about it and raising awareness and understanding what risks we take can be a good start. Discuss in the coffee rooms and at collegial meetings. What do we really want? When we talk about research links to education – maybe we should also talk about education links to research? Of course, Ph.D. education is then most relevant, but I think that students at the advanced level are a resource that is not utilized to a sufficient degree. Education and research should to a greater extent be part of the same activity. Personally, I think that a joint grant for education and research from the government would facilitate such an approach. Perhaps the time for this has come, if the recent report on Governance and Resource Allocation for HEI’s is well received.

28 October 2019

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