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Valorising teaching, beyond our own higher education institution

Higher education institutions have been and are investing in finding a better balance between the valorisation of teaching and research. The example of KU Leuven, in Belgium, shows that even though an institution puts a lot of effort in honouring teaching in an appreciative way, it may not be experienced that way by the academics. Saartje Creten, an educational developer at the university, explains why engaging with other European higher education institutions on these matters proves that, while investing in the valorisation of teaching at the institutional level is indispensable, it is complementary and useful to look into the topic beyond the boundaries of one’s own institution.

In the first minutes of his welcome speech in October 2018 for newly-appointed faculty members, KU Leuven Rector Luc Sels stated that “teaching and research are equally valued at KU Leuven.” Being a research-intensive university, it has been clear for a long time that research was a priority among other university missions. However, over the last decade, much work has been done to valorise teaching more and more. Enabling a cultural shift and changing perspectives is a slow and nonlinear process. Finding common ground between all stakeholders within the university (academics, policy makers, administrative entities, etc.) takes time. Nevertheless, an academic leader taking a clear position on the importance and value of teaching paves the way for future actions at the institution.

Measures aiming to valorise research are widely known and accepted in the academic community. It is about, for example, the number of publications in leading peer-reviewed journals, the number of doctoral candidates recruited, and the amount of research funding obtained. In addition, higher education institutions are nowadays also installing or starting to set up systems and strategies to valorise and honour teaching. These initiatives vary from incentive systems (to showcase good teaching) and providing resources (for supporting learning and teaching), to assessing teaching achievements and having them (in some cases) taken into account in career decisions – as mentioned in the 2018 Trends report and a recent EUA paper on career paths in teaching.

At KU Leuven, several initiatives have been launched over the past years. For example, a peer-reviewed teaching portfolio has been implemented, and positive results accounted under this portfolio lead to a University Teaching Qualification recognised by all Dutch universities and three Belgian universities. The portfolio has an open format rather than checklists. The peer review is a two-way dialogue between peers and the author of the portfolio.

Another example, in addition to the mostly research-oriented sabbatical leaves, career breaks have been created to give breathing space to invest in teaching. Also, a teaching award of the University Education Council honours strong teaching practices, both for individuals and teams. Finally, teaching achievements and participating in professional development programmes are now considered as part of criteria in career-related decisions.

Furthermore, extra attention is given to stimulate an open educational culture, resulting in exchanges of teaching practices in network events, the sharing of the teaching load in team teaching, and collaboration between faculty members on educational innovation, etc. There is still a long way to go, however, to make learning and teaching a topic for conversation on practices among faculty members, since it has always been a very individual activity and responsibility.

Despite all good intentions, faculty members do not always perceive initiatives such as the teaching portfolio as valorising or honouring their efforts in teaching. This is the drawback: encouraging and motivating measures may be experienced as administrative burdens and solely seen as obligations and additional tasks. No matter how well-intentioned or well-communicated, strong signals from academic leaders are key in how the valorisation of teaching is perceived. Participating in the EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group “Career paths in teaching” has worked as a catalyst in KU Leuven to rethink and reopen the debate on how our institution values teaching practices and the quality of teaching. In order to do this, the HR Department, the Educational Policy Unit and the Educational Development Unit will join forces in the upcoming semester and work together with all stakeholders (from faculty members to policy makers) to optimise the approach.

At the same time, there is a limit to what one can do in the context of her/his own institution. In the field of research, it comes as evident to seek recognition and valorisation beyond one’s own institution. For teaching, this is not so common, as it is an activity that is (primarily) situated in one specific institution. Academics feel like part of an international community of researchers, but do they also feel part of an international community of teachers? How can we valorise teaching beyond the boundaries of an institution, region or country? As the report of the Thematic Peer Group states (p. 4), “As academic careers become less limited to one institution and international staff mobility becomes the norm, the absence of a common language or framework for teaching hinders possibilities of dialogue and shared acceptance of requirements for recognition for teaching. A shared framework will also provide grounds to motivate academics to invest in their teaching.”

A one-size-fits-all approach is probably not the solution. The EUA Thematic Peer Group had a shared understanding of the fact that this language or framework should not be too rigid and local adaptations should be possible. However, having an internationally shared language would be an enormous step forward in stimulating an open (and global) educational culture. Therefore, investing in two parallel tracks seems logical. On the one hand, at the level of the institution, KU Leuven will continue to enhance the valorisation of teaching in its own context. On the other hand, it is relevant to keep an open mind and engage in an ongoing international dialogue. Working together and exchanging ideas via fora as the EUA, for example, opens many opportunities and possibilities.

Saartje Creten was a member of EUA’s 2018 Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Career Paths in Teaching”.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Saartje Creten

Saartje Creten is an Educational Developer at the Education Development Unit of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven), in Belgium. In 2018, she was a member of EUA’s Thematic Peer Group on “Career Paths in Teaching”. This text reflects the author’s personal view and does not represent any official position from the university. 

Photo credit: ©Tim Van Dyck

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