Where did the teaching go?

Dr Ayesha Razzaque
Thursday, Sep 22, 2022

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.

Fall is upon us and at many universities around the world that means the beginning of yet another academic year. A few days ago, I was talking on the phone to my daughter, a sophomore, about her new classes.

Many second-year courses still have enrollments running into multiple hundreds that only thin out in later years. That means the only way they can be conducted at the speed and scale necessary is in a lecture format, where the flow of information is only one-way and student numbers make asking questions during class impossible. Her Biochemistry course is one of them. And yet, she was positively psyched. The first class ended in applause for the professor. By the end a good many students were so emotional they were shedding tears – in a class on Biochemistry!

Having never had such a classroom experience I asked her what made that class special. Her words: “It was just that good!” It had the effect of reinvigorating her interest in her major. All this by means of the humble lecture format that is much maligned in educational circles.

This episode goes to show the good that is possible with even traditional methods of teaching and learning, if only the effort put into them is genuine and wholehearted. Technology like projectors, interactive screens, computers, tablets, smartphones, smart boards, clickers and learning management systems and pedagogical methods like active learning, flipped classroom, group learning and project-based learning are all tools in the arsenal that can help improve learning outcomes. However, dedication and commitment to delivering an engaging learning experience on the instructor’s part matched by motivation to learn on the students’ side are sine qua non.

Merely having a piece of paper that says ‘PhD’ does not guarantee that its holder knows the first thing about being a good teacher. That is precisely what so many university students recently had to say to a fact-finding committee of parliamentarians. Who do we have to thank for this state of affairs? Why is teaching less of a priority for those entering academe?

I blame the standards set by the HEC’s Tenure Track System (TTS), its take on the US university faculty tenure system. The HEC’s TTS makes faculty career progression in academia contingent on meeting a single poorly set and easily gamed benchmark – publish a certain number of journal papers, regardless of discipline, with a quality control condition that still permits many predatory and fraudulent journals yet excludes many others from credible and long-established publishers.

As a result, academics have no incentive to put time and effort into their teaching responsibilities. The ones who still do, do so of their own sense of responsibility but there is no systemic mechanism that demands it of them and there is no penalty for taking a fly by the seat of one’s pants approach. Years of this misguided policy and continued tooth and nail resistance to reform by those that introduced the TTS have created an ecosystem that only rewards research, much of it of questionable veracity and no import or impact but accords no priority to teaching. TTS appointment contracts do not demand anything else.

The system does not recognize or reward people whose talents and strengths lie in teaching and forces them to produce ‘research’. Conditions at Pakistan’s more than 220 universities are as diverse as the country is big and very few can show even the most basic resources to allocate to research and fewer still should qualify as research universities. Nevertheless, when asked to categorize themselves as either research vs teaching universities, all insisted on being categorized as the former, as if teaching well is beneath them.

This misguided idea that every institution of higher education must conduct research has become deep-seated over the years. During an interaction with the secretary of the MoFEPT at the time, when I proposed a rethink of the requirement on all faculty to conduct research and instead let them focus on teaching, the secretary questioned how it is possible for faculty holding PhDs to not do research.

The goal of preparing well-rounded, thinking and employable graduates has fallen by the way-side. Is it any wonder then that so many undergraduates (who make up the bulk of the university student population) feel unheard and neglected by their institutions? This is what we get for putting bureaucrats with no specialized training, knowledge, or experience in charge, let them make decisions and advise politicians setting policy priorities.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that forcing every faculty member and university, capable and sufficiently resourced or not, to conduct research but not put any effort into their teaching will improve the quality of graduates they produce.

The UK higher education sector is one example that seriously values excellence in teaching. Faculty members holding doctoral degrees are required to earn the Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE), an 18-month long programme that equips faculty members with the skills to deliver high-quality teaching and learning, in the first few years of service in order to remain faculty members. In later years, as faculty members move up the ranks and become more deeply involved in other aspects running universities, this is followed by other qualifications that appropriately strengthen leadership and management skills.

The higher education systems of other countries like the US do not have strict qualification requirements like the UK does, but departmental tenure committees of senior colleagues, student feedback systems and healthy competition with faculty peers maintain an effective check on the quality of teaching that is delivered in classrooms.

But regardless of whether checks on teaching quality are maintained within institutions as in the US or by national qualifications as in the UK, institutions acknowledge that there are different paths for faculty to contribute to the mission of the university. Faculty members at the same institution are often working on different contracts with very different expectations.

Realize that the primary weakness of the local higher education sector is that the graduates it produces are for the most part unskilled and unemployable. The research it produces should, at least for the moment, be a tertiary priority at best. Publishing journal papers no one reads does not help employ graduates – teaching so well that it kindles a passion to learn about one’s chosen discipline both in the classroom and long after class is over does. I am not demanding the impossible: that every university become a Harvard or MIT. All I am asking is that the teaching they deliver be comparable with our better performing local universities, ie, our NUSTs, FASTs and UET Lahore.

Delinking faculty success from student success has created the situation we find ourselves in right now. We need a rebalancing of faculty’s efforts from only-research to teaching or (at the few institutions capable of conducting research) to teaching-and-research and a reorientation of incentives that reflects that. For such a rededication, teaching must no longer be treated as a dirty word.