Durham University is manifestly an institution with a strong research focus, dedicated to serving society through the creation and dissemination of knowledge. An interesting cultural insight into life at a university like this, however, is that we have two thematic PVCs - one for research and one for education – and both PVCs have generally been expected to remain research active, but neither is expected to teach beyond the odd seminar or colloquium. While this is largely for practical diary reasons, it is nevertheless revealing. When we appoint regular academic staff, there is detailed scrutiny of their research outputs; their papers and monographs are read and assessed, we seek expert external views on their research achievements and plans, and so on. Assessing their abilities as teachers is also seen as important, but is not really approached with the same intensity or professionalism. Many research-intensive universities would have a similar story to tell. Why is this?
It is certainly not because we don’t emphasise the importance of teaching and learning at Durham. Currently 62% of academic staff are HEA Fellows: our most recent metrics indicate 284 Associate Fellows, 705 Fellows, 25 Senior Fellows and five Principal Fellows – two of whom are on the university executive. Working with the UK Professional Standards Framework produced by the HEA, the sector’s body for enhancing teaching quality, helps academics to gain recognition for their skills and not only gives credibility internally and externally to our work in developing teaching excellence, but also builds up a community of staff who can support others with their teaching practice. Durham also performs well in various external assessments of educational quality.
I think that part of this success lies in three things: ethos, structures, and humility. The ethos of a university is a tangible and real thing, which informs not just how staff and students think of their role, but also has an influence on the population of people who choose to apply to work or study there. Members of the university executive, students, research stars, heads of departments and divisions, college principals: they all support the importance of research-led education of high quality in what they say, and in how they behave. That clear commitment from all sides, which is a constant encouragement to those keeping education high on the agenda, is necessary – but not in itself sufficient. While the large proportion of HEA fellowships across the institution may largely be a reflection of structures described below, the high proportion of Senior and Principal Fellows undoubtedly reflects this shared ethos and a belief that accredited Fellowships make a difference.
Getting structures in place also matters. We have developed several training pathways, Durham University Learning and Teaching Awards (DULTA) for postgraduates, post-doctoral researchers and part-time teachers; the PGCAP for all new academic staff, and the Durham Research-led Education Accreditation Model (DREAM) for academic staff – all of which are accredited by the HEA and lead to the various levels of Fellowship level. A key feature is that these have each been adapted to work within a Durham context. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching and learning excellence is not workable given the diversity of the sector, and the HEA has worked with us to tailor-make what we need.
Courses are delivered by colleagues able to combine pedagogical expertise with deep insight into the research culture of the institution, and are generally seen as making a contribution rather than being a bureaucratic distraction. Another part of the puzzle, which is still very much in development, is our parallel career tracks for researching academics and for academics with a primary focus on education and scholarship. We have an active Teaching Focused Academic Staff Network which brings together expertise and support for academic colleagues with that emphasis.
The third thing may seem a little incongruous: humility in implementing educational strategy. At Durham the academic faculty have diverse backgrounds, are spread across many different disciplines – and tend to be engaged with, and ambitious about, teaching and learning in a research-led setting. We attract academics who want to achieve excellence both as researchers and as educators, and this means that there is a constant bubbling up of energy, ambition, and ideas about teaching and learning across the institution. This makes it particularly important to avoid any rigid top-down imposition of ideas: I may chair our education committee, but I am certainly not the source of great knowledge or insight into what we should teach and how we should be doing education. We do have an institutional-level strategic approach to educational quality, with highly-developed principles that underpin the taught curriculum, but we aim to deliver that strategy in partnership with departments and in a way that respects the highly distributed expertise and creativity of many different faculty members.
One of the central tenets of the educational strategy is an emphasis on research-led education, and in particular the development of a researcher mindset and real intellectual curiosity in our students. While this places great demands on everyone involved in education here, it also creates an inspirational environment which excites interest and brings together the central mission of knowledge creation and education.
We are proud of what we have achieved at Durham in balancing our focus on research and education. The planned Teaching Excellence Framework will require us to further develop the quality of education we provide and demonstrate a high level of recognised accreditation in education. Extending the collaborative approach we espouse ‘in-house’ to include national organisations with specific expertise may be one way of achieving this. As we develop the next university strategy and look forward to further developing our educational offering, a professional approach to research-led education remains of central importance.
Professor Ward is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor (Education) and Professor of Mathematics at Durham University.