There can be little doubt in general that institutional priorities, policies and practices can and do shape the environment within which students learn if only because Departments and individual academics operate within an institutional framework. Such frameworks may be light or heavy, depending on a number of variables such as the institutional culture and the level of governmental pressure. There are a number of broad indicators of institutional attitudes to teaching.
Thus, for example, statements about teaching in institutional strategic plans, newsletters, press releases and submissions to government all indicate the level of support institutions give to teaching and learning. The quality of teaching spaces and support services as well as policies and practices relating to appointment and promotion of academic staff send clear messages to staff and students about the value placed on education in practice.
Given that few members of the academic staff have undertaken training for their increasingly complex roles as teachers, the existence or otherwise of comprehensive professional development programmes and of regular feedback from peers and students about performance are also strong indicators of the institutional value ascribed to teaching and learning.
To date, in comparison with their British and Australian counterparts, successive Irish governments have adopted a relatively benign approach to the evaluation of teaching quality at third level. Nevertheless, it does not follow that institutions should neglect systematic and regular formative evaluation of their teaching and learning policies, practices, support services and built environment in order to improve learning outcomes and to demonstrate accountability. Already, one newspaper has produced a league table of Irish universities based on very limited data. Unless universities can provide more comprehensive and valid evidence for such comparisons then much of the excellent work produced across the sector may be misinterpreted or remain largely unknown.
Systematic formative evaluation at the institutional level can be implemented in a number of ways all of which should be embedded in institutional strategic planning. The temptation to draw models from commerce and industry should, however, be resisted. Fundamentally, universities do not exist to create profits or maximise return on assets (Birnbaum, 2000). One approach worth considering is benchmarking. An Australian project involving the participation of 33 of the 36 publicly funded universities in that country, produced a benchmarking manual which (with some adaptation) could be used in this country (McKinnon et al., 2000).
Basically, benchmarking can provide universities with ‘reference points for good practice and for ways of improving their functioning’ (McKinnon et al., 2000, p. 2). The manual does not use the term ‘best practice’ on the pragmatic grounds that there will always be problems identifying such practice, and that all practices can be improved over time. The benchmarks used, therefore, are based on a broad consensus among Australian universities of what current good practices actually are.
There is a heavy emphasis on outcomes but due weight is also given to indicators which measure the drivers of future performance and to those which measure the rate of change of performance. Further, the manual recognises that that which is most important or valuable cannot always be measured quantitatively.
The manual lists benchmarks for all the major aspects of a university’s operations with an entire set being devoted to teaching and learning.
The HERDSA Checklist on Valuing Teaching (reproduced in Appendix C ) adopts a similar approach but is rather less comprehensive. We recommend the list as a good way of engaging staff in the process of reflection on institutional supports for teaching and learning.