Teaching matters – or does it?

How one lecturer broke the silence on university priorities, and why it’s time for things to change.

How one lecturer broke the silence on university priorities, and why it’s time for things to change.

Last semester, in a recording leaked by a concerned student, a Corporate Finance lecturer at Monash University remarked to his cohort of almost 1000 students:

Maybe you want me to spend all my time preparing for the lecture and the exam, but what really matters is our research achievements… over here, it doesn’t matter how well we teach, we never get promotions for being excellent teachers… clearly we want different things, so between you and me there is a conflict of interest.

The lecturer asked not to be named for this article, and by all accounts he performs well in his student evaluations. But his controversial point stands. And it’s hard to blame him for speaking honestly.

In order to make some sense of how teaching standards have fallen so low, I started asking questions. Not long after my attempts to speak with the lecturer in question, I received a stern email from the Interim Dean of the Monash Business School, asking me to desist with my questioning, and instead, to communicate solely through the Monash media department.

“There is no incentive for putting effort into your teaching and effort into your students”

I had finally discovered the most effective way to attract the attention of Monash’s influential decision makers: Ask a lot of questions, not of them, but of those who might have something awkward to disclose.

Grant Blashki, an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, said that while teaching is factored into academic promotion, “over a number of decades as an academic, I have to say that teaching does tend to be the poor cousin of research, and doesn’t receive as much prestige funding or weighting towards promotion as does research”.

I also spoke to an experienced Monash University lecturer, who, speaking on condition of anonymity, termed teaching the “ugly step-sister” of research.

One Associate Professor refused to speak on the record for fear of retribution, and another mentioned that other than personal satisfaction, “there is no incentive for putting effort into your teaching and effort into your students”.

Something has to give.

Students are right to expect quality, attention and commitment from their teachers. Particularly those who have reviewed their HECS debt recently. We enter university life supposedly as our institution’s most important stakeholder, believing our interests will be prioritised. Yet reality comes quickly.

What’s on the slides is what you get, nothing more and nothing less. The limited time some teachers put into their classes is obvious when the politics professor makes no mention of the latest Liberal Leadership Spill, or when the finance teacher fails to discuss the Banking Royal Commission.

Come exam time, a student’s diminishing standing at a university might be further illustrated when a prestigious university like Monash decides to remove its database of past exams, enabling the chief examiners to use the same questions as previous years, and stunting students’ attempts at preparation.

Universities are exploiting the fact that once students walk in the door, we are paying our fees and not turning back. What happens after matters less to the university than getting students through the door in the first place, and that is largely dependant on an Australian university’s number one priority: quality research.

Dr Michael Whelan, a Senior Lecturer at NSW’s Southern Cross University, explains a university’s thinking: “Research aids rankings, and high rankings increase prestige”. What does prestige bring? Students.

This is not to say that universities should be criticised for emphasising the importance of research. Research saves millions of lives through crucial medical discoveries and plays a fundamental role in the search for viable sources of renewable energy, among many other things.

But research should not continue to be prioritised to the detriment of teaching and to the detriment of the student experience. Like in June 2016, when the government withdrew all funding for the Office of Learning and Teaching, which had allowed academics to seek grants for innovative teaching research, looking into the benefits of, for example, flipped classrooms and interactive lecture seminars. The research equivalent is the Australian Research Council, which continues to be fully funded.

Universities are exploiting the fact that once students walk in the door, we are paying our fees and not turning back.

Students deserve teachers who care about teaching, and teachers need recognition and funding to achieve that goal. Most Australian universities, like Monash, lag behind, employing academics as Research Only, or Research and Teaching.

Dr Whelan is one of Australia’s few Teaching Only academics, where promotion or demotion is based on teaching materials, innovative approaches to lecturing and grading, and implementation of better teaching methods across the university and the globe.

Most Teaching Only academics are employed on a casual basis, often missing out on a permanent position because when they apply, they are pipped by an applicant with a research profile. Dr Whelan believes that lecturers with a high teaching load should become tenured academic staff, and teaching focused academics should be valued equally.

He says that while progress is slow, a change is emerging, where university administration and executives are promoting more academics based on their teaching, and more universities are joining the Higher Education Academy, which grants academics funding and recognition for their efforts into teaching.

When asked about Monash’s commitment to high-quality teaching, a university spokesperson said the University “is currently in discussions about joining the Higher Education Academy”. Hopefully, these discussions translate to implementation. 

The potential for change is clear, and as more students call for it, the universities will be compelled to listen. Students have leverage – they can choose where to enrol, and once enrolled, they can utilise their voice in various ways.

Unit evaluations, although uninspiring, profoundly impact a unit’s teaching methods, and students should always complete them. Chief Examiners and Course Convenors can be contacted by email or by phone to raise objections and air grievances. Student associations exist for the students – they should be utilised by students, who together can form a powerful coalition to represent their interests.

Teaching matters – it’s time to make that clear.

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