At major universities, faculty members are often said to view teaching as less prestigious than research. To the extent that this is true, it’s an impediment to the development of great educational programs and it prevents us from finding good synergies between teaching and research.
I recently heard Kristin Halvorsen, Norway’s Minister of Education and Research, point again to the low status of teaching. She asked for suggestions about how to rectify this. Here are four structural changes that could contribute to her important goal.
1] Make excellence in teaching part of the promotion process. When an associate professor in Norway applies for promotion to full professor, an external committee is formed; that committee has the final word in determining whether or not an individual is promoted.
This system could easily be modified to enhance the status of teaching. There are two possible approaches. One option is to change the instructions for the committees. Associate professors at Norwegian universities spend roughly half their time on teaching and half on research. Yet the evaluation committees are (almost) exclusively concerned with research. They could be instructed to consider teaching accomplishments as well as research accomplishments when considered a promotion application.
An alternative approach would let the committees continue to focus on research, but instead allow the applicant’s local leadership (e.g. department chair) to supplement the committee’s evaluation with an assessment of the individual’s work as a teacher, before a final decision is made by the applicant’s home university.
2] Award publication points for textbooks and other teaching materials. The Norwegian government finances universities in part based on their research production, as measured in an elaborate system for counting publications. Points are awarded only for research publications; hence, money is generated by scientific articles and monographs.
There is no monetary award, however, for the production of teaching materials, such as textbooks. If textbooks were awarded points just like published PhD dissertations are, it would increase the status for work focused on teaching. At my university, a certain number of points are necessary to earn a sabbatical; currently, these can only be earned through research publications. If they also could be earned for publications focused on work in the classroom, it would be a motivation to do this kind of work.
3] Use credit-production funds for teaching incentives. Universities in Norway are also partially funded on the basis of the number of credits (studiepoeng) they produce. Yet while it is common for the funding generated by research to be partially channeled back to its source (individual or group), it is very uncommon for funds generated by credit-production to be channeled anywhere other than the general budget. Indeed, I’ve never heard of this happening.
There’s no formal barrier to using credit-production funds for incentives. It is of course true that most such monies are necessary for basic expenses like salaries, but some of it could be used to reward those who invest in teaching. If this option were promoted from above, I’m confident we could see some creative approaches.
4] Connect research money to excellence in teaching. One idea that is floating around is that university presidents in Norway are less invested in teaching excellence than research excellence. Personally, I do not believe this claim, after four years as a VP spending a lot of time with people in university leadership. However, if you’re convinced it is true, then you could get the attention of presidents by connecting teaching to the funding of research.
For example, you could require that applications to the national research council include a discussion of how the new knowledge generated by the project will be taught. What courses does the project fit in with? What pedagogical innovations will it trigger? What is the relationship between the research group that is applying for funds and the teaching program? Just asking these questions would make it clear that teaching properly belongs at the core of university activity, alongside research.
It’s not difficult to come up with these ideas, Minister Halvorsen. But it is difficult to implement them. Your leadership could make that possible. If you want to raise the status of teaching, choose any one of these, and lead the way.
I look forward to seeing where you choose to go.
What’s your idea for how to raise the status of teaching at universities? Tell me in the comments section below!
A revised version of this article appeared in Aftenposten on June 19, 2014, under the title 5 grep for å heve undervisnings status.
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