Hubert Coonen Hubert Coonen Sacha Ruland

University career for excellent teachers!

Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 28 May 2014 12:59
The balance at universities is out of kilter and it is teaching that ends up paying for it. This is the conclusion of a comparative international study by Hubert Coonen, professor at Maastricht University’s Teachers Academy. The culprit: the ‘reputation mechanism’ of research. Teaching must be valued more highly, according to Coonen. To this end, he recommends the introduction of a professorship for excellent teachers.

His book is a wake-up call. A warning: watch out universities, don’t neglect your teaching. That it’s come to this is remarkable, Coonen explains: “Not so long ago the university was primarily an educational institution. The clue is in the Dutch word for professor, hoogleraar – the highest position in the academic ranks literally means ‘high teacher’. Professors are first and foremost teachers!” Nowadays teaching is often seen as an irksome, additional task: “The mind set has completely changed.”
How did this happen? As Coonen sees it, the reason is clear: the almost singular emphasis on research. “Research has become the dominant reputation mechanism from which universities and researchers derive their profile and status. Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with this in itself. Universities are dynamic and creative organisations at the very top of our knowledge structure. Research has enriched our knowledge and quality of life. But the balance has taken a hit.” And this, he reports in his study Onderwijs op de universiteit (‘University education’), has become the prevailing view everywhere – in Europe, the United States and the OECD countries.

Equality of tasks

Coonen calls for the balance to be restored between the university’s core tasks: teaching as well as research. More attention must be paid to teaching and to the careers of excellent teachers – and not without reason.“In recent decades the number of students has exploded. They represent a fantastic talent pool, andare entitled to the best education and the best teachers. Over time, this translates into innovation and entrepreneurship, and society reaps the benefits. In fact, top-quality, intensive education for the 250,000 students at Dutch universities could end up being more beneficial for both science and society than exclusive concentration on the cream of the crop.” His book makes a series of recommendations to improve the position of teaching at universities. Steps have already been taken in the right direction: universities are obliging lecturers to hone their teaching skills in the form of the basic teaching certificate, and some are well on their way towards a senior qualification. But the bar must be raised further still, Coonen says. Countries like Australia, England and Sweden are good examples of how this push can result in better teaching levels.

Teaching professors

Excellent teachers should have career prospects right up to the post of professor, where teaching and research will remain closely linked. This is one of his key proposals. “This will allow the university to send the message that it aims to excel in both core tasks.” Teaching professors will conduct research on the development of university education, focusing on academic quality, innovation capacity and digital pedagogy, such as the integration of international learning communities into the educational concept. Coonen finds it surprising that Dutch universities do little research on the quality of their own teaching: “We’re used to anchoring our work in scientific argumentation and, wherever possible, scientific evidence. Yet this is rare when it comes to improving the quality of university education and holding it to account.”
Maastricht University is an exception. Coonen, having worked at various universities, says this without bias. Its major draw card, Problem-Based Learning – “a big hit in education” – has been scientifically underpinned from the outset. Other universities should take note. “There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all model”, Coonen concedes. “But for a teaching model to succeed, it needs a scientific basis. As the driving force behind educational innovation, teaching professors can take the lead in this.”

Balanced reputation mechanisms

Developing, implementing and evaluating good academic education takes time. Universities must therefore permit a better balance in the time staff devote to teaching and to research, Coonen says. The responsibility lies with the government and the university boards. “They have to show that they value teaching by explicitly acknowledging and rewarding staff who excel as teachers. You can facilitate this by introducing a teaching career in academia and by investing in the study and development of innovative educational concepts. This would bring the university’s reputation mechanisms back into balance.”
These recommendations are already being taken up, Coonen notes. The policy departments of the Ministry for Education and the European Union are taking them on board, and the Association of Dutch Universities organised a national conference on the theme with almost 200 participants. His wake-up call has worked. “The key now is to keep the topic on the agenda and ensure that university teaching gets the attention it deserves.”

Hubert Coonen (1951) is professor of Evidence-Based Professional Development of Teachers at the Maastricht University Teachers Academy. He is a former professor and dean of the University of Twente, and served as a Crown-appointed member of the national Board of Education. His book ‘Onderwijs op deuniversiteit: Verkennende studie naar de professionalisering en loopbaanperspectieven van universitair onderwijspersoneel’ was published in 2013. 

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