Who decides if I am a qualified teacher in UK Higher Education?

Disclaimer: This post outlines my personal thoughts on the issues discussed.

In October 2015 I wrote the post ‘Am I a qualified teacher in UK Higher Education?’. The focus of that post was on the inconsistencies of the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) categories of ‘qualified teachers’. Everything I wrote in that post is still applicable and the ‘percentage of qualified teachers’ (based on the HESA statistics) is used by universities to set internal targets and to benchmark themselves in the sector. Although not a metric in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) it was widely cited in university narratives concerning the quality of  teaching.

The more fundamental question however is who decides who is a qualified teacher in higher education? (I’ll avoid any distinction between ‘qualified’ and ‘recognised’ here). At one level the HESA categories are accepted by the sector simply because universities have to supply this data. However, anyone on the inside understands that not all the qualifying categories are created equal; in my view this entirely reasonable—after all why should someone who trained to teach 3-year olds in France (for example) be considered as much a qualified teacher in UK higher education as someone who has completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE? Eventually, the comparisons get more problematic; we estimate that it is about 30 hours work for an experienced teacher to put together an application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), whereas the PGCert in Learning and Teaching in HE for our ‘inexperienced’ lecturers is 600 hours work (3 x 20 credits at Level 7), but both qualifications tick the ‘yes’ box on the HESA return. Although the FHEA (experienced teacher routes) are focused on higher education, is it a more appropriate qualification for teaching in HE than a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) for teaching in a secondary school which is 600 hours work (if 60 credits at Level 7)? It is clear the secondary school teacher must have evidenced a greater understanding of teaching and how students learn than the experienced HE lecturer, albeit for a younger age group.

Part of the reason this discussion takes place is simply that there is no authority on the subject. University senior managers can (and do) make different judgements about what teaching qualifications a university lecturer ought to have. Some will insist on the HEA Fellowship and others will be satisfied at anything that ticks the HESA qualified box. The degree to which such requirements are enforced varies too.

In some respects ambiguity on the subject might be welcome. After all, why should the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE though the FHEA nomenclature will remain for the time being at least), have a monopoly on HE teaching qualifications? Why shouldn’t other agencies set up alternative schemes which have an official stamp of approval as HE teaching qualifications? Some professional bodies already require teachers to have professional certification in the teaching of their subject (can be recorded in HESA under 08: Accredited as a teacher of their subject by a professional UK body.)

In other areas of life qualification is straightforward. I have a full UK driving licence issued by the DVLA in Swansea following a practical examination. Nobody else is permitted to issue licences in the UK. I can’t set up my own vehicle licensing agency or look for an agency with lower fees or easier standards. I can’t self-declare than I am a qualified driver on the grounds I have experience of driving a car unlicensed, or that driving a go-kart at a karting centre is the equivalent of being a licensed driver. Should I wish to drive a lorry or a bus I’ll have to take further tests –I can’t make a case that driving a 40 tonne articulated lorry is basically the same as driving a family hatchback. If I am caught abusing the the privilege of my licence , e.g. through speeding or dangerous driving my license (and thereby my qualification) can be taken away. A similar fate would await me if I’m caught driving a bus or riding a motorbike as I don’t have any right to these vehicles.

In some professions a list of qualified practitioners is publicly available. For example I can go to the General Dental Council website and look up my dentist. I can see his GDC number, the job he is licensed to do (dentist), where he trained and when he qualified. If he is found negligent or unfit to practice dentistry at at any time in the future he will no longer be allowed to practice.

So where does this leave HE teaching qualifications? Will we continue in the current ambiguity of the HESA categories? Will we have a licensing system where there will be a definite judgements or who ‘is’ and ‘is not’ qualified? Will we end up with a system of rival organisations offering their own licensing and accreditation as has happened in boxing over the past 60 years? 

Irrespective of the way forward a number of issues remain:

1. Most universities (though not all) require new inexperienced teaching staff to undertake a Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE. At some point in the distance future, we may reach a point where most teachers in HE have this qualification.

2. ‘Grandfathering’ of unqualified experienced staff. Not everyone will agree with me here, but in a sense the FHEA regularises staff who do not otherwise have a qualification. Some (probably not anyone who does a job like mine) might argue that those in post before a certain date should be automatically regularised in some way, but I think it is completely reasonable to expect all teaching in HE to undertake an HEA Fellowship. Could the HEA Fellowship for experienced staff eventually disappear as it ceases to be needed? Will it remain, but cease to be a ‘normal’ route in about 20 years time?

3. Good standing in HE Teaching-- at present there is no mechanism or requirement for demonstrating continued ‘good standing’ in HE Teaching. Similarly it is not possible to be stripped of an HEA Fellowship for misconduct, incompetence, criminal behaviour or other misdemeanours.

4. Does there need to be a sector wide agreement about who is and who is not qualified teacher? It might be argued that the HESA categories already do this, albeit in an inconsistent way. However, while HEA Fellows can be readily checked, there is no systematic way to check the validity of other things colleagues might claim to be teaching qualifications. These vary from the ‘a PhD in my subject makes me a qualified teacher’ argument to ‘I took a 2 day course in 1990 and wrote an essay about my lecturing’. Do we need to have ‘uncertain qualifications committees’ which rule on individual cases?

5. How can HE teaching qualifications be monitored and regulated to maintain standards in the longer term?

6. What is the exact nature of the relationship between teaching qualifications and student learning experience? What does it mean for a student to be taught by qualified as opposed to unqualified teachers? This question needs substantial treatment and I’ve just noticed this is just the second time in this post I’ve mentioned ‘students’!

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