Assuring the quality of tertiary teaching in New Zealand

September 2017

 

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DR JOHN BOEREBOOM argues that we need to develop a clearer framework to measure quality tertiary teaching in New Zealand.

 Assuring the quality

The Government, students, families and employers increasingly expect universities to produce competent, employment-ready graduates. At the same time, higher education is subjected to increasing demands for accountability. It would not be hard probably to get a consensus around the proposition that universities should aim for high quality in both their teaching and their research.

While quality in higher education is easy to demand, it is harder to define. The British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) defines quality as “a way of describing how well the learning opportunities available to students help them to achieve their award. It is about making sure that appropriate and effective teaching, support, assessment and learning opportunities are provided for them”.

In New Zealand, the universities are collectively responsible for quality assurance across the sector. The Academic Quality Agency (AQA) for New Zealand universities conducts external academic quality assurance by means of a five-yearly cycle of audits. These audits involve peer review and are evidence-based, externally benchmarked, and enhancement-led.

This process seems to be very effective. A 2015 international review confirmed that New Zealand universities’ external quality assurance audit process “meets the highest standards of independence and integrity”.

The result is a university system that is internationally recognised as providing students with relevant, modern and high-quality teaching and learning experiences. Reassuringly, all eight New Zealand universities are ranked in the world’s top 500. A recent report showed that 93 per cent of international university students chose to study in New Zealand because of the strong reputation of our universities.

Clearly New Zealand is performing well at the national and institutional level – but what is happening at the grassroots level? Despite this rosy national picture, a criticism of international rankings of higher education institutions is that these rankings tend to overemphasise research performance and fail to address the quality of teaching at the classroom, lecture theatre or laboratory level. Many academics consider the processes of external quality assurance as cumbersome, bureaucratic and time-consuming and competing with time for professional and course development.

Tertiary teachers are usually appointed on the basis of their knowledge, qualifications and experience in their subject areas, and entry into tertiary teaching does not require the completion of an initial teaching qualification. Typically the main requirement to become a tertiary teacher is a PhD or master’s in a relevant field. There are no registration or accreditation requirements for tertiary teachers and there is currently no framework of standards for tertiary teaching in New Zealand. In the absence of these factors, what constitutes quality teaching in a higher education setting and how can this be assured?

There are many definitions in the literature, but they commonly refer to the effective use of pedagogical techniques to produce successful learning outcomes for students. Based on a review of postgraduate certificate curricula and National Standards frameworks, there are five key dimensions of effective tertiary teaching:

  1. Course design, including the initial planning stage, writing learning outcomes which are constructively aligned to the graduate profile, mode of delivery, module and session planning and assessment.
  2. Using a variety of teaching strategies to motivate students and optimise learning including contextual teaching, problem-based learning, cooperative learning, blended learning and group work in settings ranging from the field and laboratories to lectures.
  3. Assessment, including assessment for learning, constructive alignment of assessment and learning outcomes, formative and summative assessment, validity and reliability, relevant assignments, effective feedback, and innovative assessment practice.
  4. Catering for diversity and ensuring equity of learning opportunities and outcomes for all students by accommodating a variety of learning styles, cultures, backgrounds and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
  5. Use of educational technology to enhance different components of teaching and learning, such as enrolment management, content delivery, collection and grading of assignments, and online assessment and evaluation of teaching and learning.

In the context of the lack of training and registration requirements and armed with a broad definition of quality in tertiary teaching, how should the quality of tertiary teaching in New Zealand be assured?

Before answering this question, some comparisons can be drawn with the compulsory education sector in New Zealand. The pathway to becoming a registered childhood, primary or secondary teacher in
New Zealand requires an initial teacher education (ITE) qualification, provisional certification and a two-year induction and mentoring period.

The Education Council has developed the Satisfactory Teaching Dimensions, which focus on ECE, primary and secondary education. The dimensions “affirm the bicultural and multicultural nature of New Zealand” and stress the fundamental requirement to “respond to the increasing drive for quality Māori education”. The primary use of the dimensions is to support the ECE, primary and secondary teacher registration process.

If it is deemed necessary for ECE, primary and secondary teachers to be registered, it raises the question of whether there should be compulsory teacher training and registration for tertiary teachers. This debate has been ongoing since at least 1999, but there are currently no national requirements for registering or accrediting tertiary teachers. While a comprehensive content knowledge of a discipline area is essential, it is not sufficient to be an effective tertiary teacher. Tertiary teachers also need competence in pedagogy.

In the absence of formal requirements, many universities provide postgraduate certificates for tertiary teaching that can be completed any time after commencing employment as a lecturer. Participation is typically not mandatory and teaching-related professional development has to compete with other work pressures, such as administration and research. In addition, many universities have academic development units that offer induction programmes and continuing professional development in the form of workshops for academic staff and individual consultancy.

At the national level, AKO Aotearoa, New Zealand’s National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, has a mission to “assist educators and organisations to enable the best possible educational outcomes for all learners”. The AKO Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards focus on: planning and design for learning; facilitating learning; assessing student learning; evaluating learning and teaching; and professional development and leadership in teaching.

Currently the AKO criteria are used only by a minority of tertiary teachers who are nominated for national teaching awards. However, the criteria also provide a model for the local teaching award processes at various universities and could be used more widely.

In the UK a Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) has been introduced and the Higher Education Academy (HEA) was established  in 2003 to provide an accreditation scheme for university teachers. Another avenue in the UK, aligned with the UK Professional Standards Framework, is the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) in the UK, which provides accreditation for the programmes offered by higher education institutions and organisations and recognition of individual completion.

Despite the lack of formal training or registration requirements, ample training opportunities exist for tertiary teachers at university, national, and international levels. However, there is no national consistency in how tertiary teachers and institutions engage with these provisions.

One option is for New Zealand institutions to align themselves with the HEA. An example is the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), which has nearly 30 HEA Fellows in Fellowship and Senior Fellowship categories. However, it can be argued that since New Zealand lecturers face a unique teaching environment that includes meeting obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi and local needs, there should be a New Zealand accreditation scheme.

Not surprisingly, the Productivity Commission has recommended that “New Zealand should develop frameworks of standards for tertiary teaching to recognise and reward capability, and these should incorporate effective modes of teaching for Māori and Pacific students”.

It is now timely to take stock of the current situation and develop a New Zealand national framework and accreditation process. The UK Professional Standards Framework, the SEDA and HEA accreditation processes, the Satisfactory Teaching dimensions, the AKO criteria and the dimensions of effective tertiary teaching outlined in this article are useful starting points for the development of such a framework. Ako Aotearoa would be the natural choice for an organisation to develop such a scheme.

Response from Ako Aotearoa

Director of Ako Aotearoa DR STANLEY FRIELICK points out some factors to take into consideration when looking at monitoring the quality of tertiary teaching.

 

Dr Boereboom’s views on the quality of tertiary teaching are sound but overlook some important developments and key findings in the ongoing debate.

Ako Aotearoa has already ‘taken stock’ of the situation, starting with the ‘Taking Stock – Tertiary Practitioner Education Training and Support’ report in 2010, followed by a commissioned report on accreditation schemes. The former found 62 qualifications for tertiary teaching, and raised questions such as: “Do we need some national agreement on base competencies for beginning tertiary teachers?” And perhaps most importantly: “Is gaining a tertiary teaching qualification a prerequisite for becoming a good tertiary teacher?”

The follow-up report on an accreditation scheme for tertiary teachers in New Zealand in 2012 was widely debated across the sector. As proposed in the report: “A voluntary accreditation scheme … would provide tertiary teachers with public recognition of their level of teaching skills and standards of practice … It would also provide a coherent and credible quality assurance indicator accessible to all stakeholders…”

Ako Aotearoa has continued to promote this proposal as follows:

We are currently co-funding two projects on the Higher Education Academy (HEA) scheme at AUT and Unitec.

We were recently named in the Government’s response to the Productivity Commission: “We will support Ako Aotearoa and providers as they work to develop their own standards to assess and reward teachers’ capability...”.

We are a member of the HEA Australasian Strategic Advisory Board that will coordinate the universities (more than 18 now) that are implementing the HEA scheme in Australia and New Zealand.

Dr Boereboom is correct to point out some overlap between the criteria for the New Zealand Tertiary Excellence Awards and the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). But the UKPSF is a multidimensional framework that includes core knowledge and professional values.

A narrow focus on ‘areas of activity’ is not sufficient for a robust scheme. The UKPSF is not prescriptive and provides multiple pathways to professional recognition for all staff who support learning (including professional staff).

And it is possible to adapt the HEA model to the New Zealand context. AUT has demonstrated this compellingly in its Pathway to HEA Fellowship programme, which provides a bicultural perspective without compromising the integrity and international portability of HEA accreditation.

However, there are some significant challenges ahead – not the least of which is the cost of setting up a new body to administer the accreditation scheme. Ako Aotearoa is not a tertiary equivalent of the Education Council and would need significant extra funding to provide this type of service. It would make more economic sense to work in partnership in with the HEA and develop a New Zealand version, as per the AUT model. This would provide significant benefits to both individuals and institutions, with the promise of enhancing our international rankings on teaching quality.

I agree with Dr Boereboom that we need an accreditation process. The HEA model is already working for the universities and ITPs that provide degrees and postgraduate programmes. Wānanga will have their own views on aligning indigenous perspectives with international approaches. Professional standards already exist in the ACE sector and the TEC is working with Ako Aotearoa on standards for foundation education. Preliminary work has been done to scope what standards might look like in the VET/ITO and ITE sectors. 

We should take care though to avoid ending up with a hierarchy of frameworks where one sector is seen as ‘higher’ than another. A set of generic standards such as the HEA model – suitably adapted for specific contexts and possibly informed by other approaches – would ensure quality for all learners, provide all staff with pathways to professional recognition, and enhance New Zealand’s international reputation in tertiary education.

 

References:

  • ‘Taking Stock’ report (2010)
  • Govt response to Productivity Commission (2017)

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