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Promoting a European dimension to teaching enhancement

An interview with Michael Gaebel.

In 2013, a European Commission high-level expert group report pointed to the fact that in all areas of education becoming a teacher usually requires formalised pedagogical training, but not necessarily for higher education, or at least not in all systems. In order to address this issue, and inspired by the example of the UK Higher Education Academy, the Commission recommended a “European Academy for Teaching and Learning” led by stakeholders.

This suggestion opened the door to many questions: Should there be a more concerted approach to providing pedagogical staff development at the European level? Should there be a European academy? What would be its purpose and features?

This issue was addressed by the European Commission-funded EFFECT project (2015-2019), driven by a consortium that represents the diversity of the European higher education sector: The European Student Union (ESU), Education International/ETUCE (staff unions), the UK Higher Education Academy, the Irish National Forum, together with universities and university associations from 10 different countries, including the European Association Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) and EUA. Over three years, colleagues from other systems and types of institutions were invited to join the discussions and participate in the project activities.

The project offered ample opportunities to question conceived perceptions and showed, how exchanges among European higher education institutions and systems can learn from each other. It unearthed some differences in how institutions and systems address teaching enhancement, and learning and teaching general (“National Initiatives in Learning and Teaching in Europe”). But it also resulted in major points of agreement and plans for joint action, which were expressed in the “European Principles for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching”. As part of a toolkit, these support institutions in the strategic development of their learning and teaching missions. The project outcomes are described in more detail in a Feasibility study “Promoting a European dimension to teaching enhancement”, which assesses the need for teaching enhancement, and offers different options for national and European cooperation on the issue.

EUA’s Michael Gaebel, Director of Higher Education Policy, who has been a key leader in EFFECT, discusses some of the main points that emerged from the project.

What does it take to teach?

When asked what the requirements for teaching are, the common response is a doctoral or another academic degree, which in some places comprises pedagogical staff development, while in others it does not. This is the easy answer. The EUA Trends 2018 Report captures some of the complex realities present in different systems, on how teaching skills are tied into career requirements and developments.

How common are teaching enhancement measures in European higher education?

The Trends 2018 survey, conducted among 303 universities from 43 European countries, found that voluntary teaching enhancement is quite common (77%), while it is less so for compulsory offers (37%). Anecdotal evidence suggests that participants of voluntary courses are committed and enthusiastic, but can be small in numbers. Some institutions make courses compulsory for teaching beginners, who often appreciate this offer, and for new staff. Interestingly, compared to the results from the 2015 Trends Report, there has been no major increase in the percentage of institutions that offer teaching enhancement courses, despite the generally increased emphasis on higher education learning and teaching, and the seemingly growing activities for learning and teaching development.

Who is in charge of teaching enhancement?

In the vast majority of countries, it is up to the institutions to decide on whether and how they offer teaching enhancement. An EUA report on “National Initiatives in Learning and Teaching in Europe” comprising 28 systems found that teaching enhancement was commonly used in just a few systems, either due to national regulation, or the collective self-commitment of the higher education sector. 

Can teaching enhancement improve the quality of teaching?

Undoubtedly, teaching enhancement can provide a major contribution to enhancing teaching and improve learning, but not if it is perceived and designed as an isolated measure, as discussed in the feasibility study. Consortium members and consulted parties recommend embedding it into a much wider approach to develop and enhance learning and teaching. This should relate to ongoing educational and environmental change (student-centred learning, flexible learning paths, digital developments, social inclusion, etc.), as well as the institution’s mission goals. The recommendation was seen as a call for institutional leadership to align bottom-up and top-down approaches, and enable a collaborative and collegial process across the university and with the wider community. To support institutions in developing and implementing strategic approaches, EFFECT developed and tested the “European Principles for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching” as a means to stimulate and guide institutional development. Currently, the project explores how to continue and broaden this measure, as well as how to build dialogues with partner organisations on policy and practice issues.

How should we recognise teaching as part of the academic career?

Another important reason for embedding teaching enhancement is the fact that higher education teaching is usually delivered by “part-time teachers”: academics and professionals are also researchers and administrators and contribute in a variety of ways to the development of their institutions and the success of their members, including students. So, whichever approach is proposed for teaching enhancement, it would have to consider how it aligns with and supports academic careers.

Do we need European collaboration on teaching enhancement?

There is strong evidence that collaboration in general is useful, be it within higher education institutions, among institutions of one country, or in university networks. In the Trends 2018 Survey, only 10% of institutions indicated that they do not work with external partners on learning and teaching, whereas all others referred to inter-university cooperation, as well as national and international university networks and associations. Institutions also state that they use international mobility specifically for pedagogical staff development. The EFFECT project explored this in a series of staff development workshops on social inclusion and citizenship, both in person and virtually, which proved the added value of both a national and European setting. While the national events made it easier to agree and focus on specific challenges, in the European workshops found it easier to open up and explore new perspectives, beyond the boundaries set by their institution and systems. This is also one of the benefits of the EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Groups, which are currently in the third edition. They bring together institutional leadership responsible for learning and teaching from different institutions and systems across Europe to work together on critical topics such as career development, social inclusion and curriculum development.

But these are just a few examples. Much more is ongoing, though it is not always very visible: This kind of collaboration has high value, and there is more to be done, including at the European level. Again, this is the main point of the feasibility study, which points to different ways of doing this.

What would be the right approach for teaching enhancement in Europe?

There isn’t really one single “right” approach: Higher education systems across Europe and different types institutions have very diverse needs. The development of teaching enhancement can be a sensitive issue in which one has to consider the needs of the institutions, of their members, staff and students and their representations, and often also involves national authorities. Some systems have longstanding experience with shared approaches for teaching enhancement, others plan to develop them.

All this would make it challenging to imagine an approach and a structure that would fit everyone, and to justify the considerable resources and investment that this would require. But it also confirms an opportunity for exchange and possibly collaboration between existing and emerging initiatives as well.

What is the outlook for the future?

EUA’s prediction is that the pressure to provide academic staff teaching enhancement opportunities is going to rise, and that there is a key opportunity to contribute to shared high quality approaches, owned and driven by the higher education sector.

In Europe, we collaborate already together on so many issues in higher education, why not do the same on teaching enhancement? It would help to find inspiration beyond our own institutional and national environments, but also to pool resources, and to tackle common challenges, such as the lack of recognition of teaching for academic career development. Trends 2018 respondents across Europe agreed that this is the second biggest challenge for learning and teaching – only to be topped by lack of funding.

The feasibility study “Promoting a European dimension to teaching enhancement” makes some first practical suggestions on how to do this, ranging from networks of institutional centres for learning and teaching, institutional evaluation approaches and collaborative staff development programmes offered by university consortia. Looking to the future, this could even be a task for the European Universities Initiative.

There is no clear blueprint on how to go ahead, but the debate is clearly on. The European Learning & Teaching Forum is proof of that and since its launch in 2017, it has contributed to filling an important gap. But much more needs to be done, and that is a task for all of us.

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

Michael Gaebel

Michael Gaebel is Director of Higher Education Policy at the European University Association.

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