Awarding – and imagining – teaching excellence

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Tonight, the winners of the Higher Education Academy’s newly launched Global Teaching Excellence Award will be announced. The award is a milestone in advancing the higher education agenda. It’s time for teaching excellence to attain the same status and recognition as academic research, which still seems the dominant metric for valuing academic institutions, whether we look at rankings published in the media or research assessment frameworks or at performance-based funding for research.

There are compelling reasons to change this, and the award makes a start.

Tertiary qualifications have become the entrance ticket for modern societies. Never before have those with advanced qualifications had the life chances they enjoy today, and never before have those who struggled to acquire a good education paid the price they pay today. There are always those who argue that the share of young people entering higher education or advanced vocational programmes is too large. But they are usually talking about other people’s children. In the past century, they would have probably argued that there are too many children in high school.

The evidence is clear. On average across OECD countries, men with at least a bachelor’s degree earn over ÚSD 300 000 more than what they paid for their education or lose in earnings while studying, compared with those who only have a high school degree. And taxpayers too realise a return of over USD 200 000 per tertiary graduate in higher public revenues and lower social transfers. It is hard to think of a better investment at a time when knowledge and skills have become the currency of modern societies and economies. And despite the burgeoning number of graduates, we have seen no decline in their relative pay, which is so different from those with fewer qualifications.

But it’s also clear that this entrance ticket to the knowledge society is expensive; and people are generally allotted just one. That makes it so important to get it right. And this is where teaching excellence comes in. We all know that more education alone doesn't automatically translate into better jobs and better lives. We might know graduates who can’t find a job even as we hear employers lament that they can’t find people with the skills they need. Teaching excellence is about ensuring that the right mix of knowledge and skills is delivered in effective, equitable and efficient ways.

And the value of teaching is only bound to rise as digitalisation unbundles educational content, delivery and accreditation in higher education. In the digital age, anything that today you call your proprietary knowledge and content is going to be a commodity available to everyone tomorrow. Accreditation still gives universities enormous power to extract monopoly rents, but just think a few years ahead. What will micro-credentialling do to this system? Or think of what happens when all employers can see beyond degrees to the knowledge and skills that prospective employees actually have. That leaves the quality of teaching as perhaps the most valuable asset of modern higher education institutions. It becomes harder for universities to hide poor teaching behind great research. We are living in this digital bazaar and anything that is not built for the network age is going to crack apart under the pressure.

Future jobs are likely to pair computer intelligence with the creative, social and emotional skills, attitudes and values of human beings. It will then be our capacity to innovate, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will harness the power of the machines to shape the world for the better. That means faculty need to look for outcomes that are fresh and original, that contribute something of intrinsic positive worth. Achieving these outcomes is likely to involve entrepreneurialism, imagination, inquisitiveness, persistence and collaboration.

As a result, universities’ previous priority of preparing a select few for research has given way to providing up to half the population with advanced knowledge and skills. The result has been the rapid expansion of the higher education sector and the establishment of more diverse types of higher education institutions. There are now over 18 000 higher education institutions in 180 countries that offer at least a post-graduate degree or a four-year professional diploma.

This historic shift has been accompanied by changes in funding regimes. The rising costs of higher education are increasingly borne by students themselves (see, for example, the United Kingdom). So it follows that students are becoming more discriminating consumers. And in choosing between universities, they are also thinking ahead about securing future employment. In response, institutions are competing to provide more relevant knowledge and skills through more effective teaching.

These sweeping developments in the higher education marketplace are intensifying competition. Indeed, a global education market has emerged. In 2015, there were 3.3 million students travelling across OECD countries to study. Others look to the new, internationally available, digital platforms to provide or supplement their learning.

Taken together, these developments have created an urgent demand for data to measure and improve the quality of teaching and learning in higher education. Institutions need data to build on competitive strengths and address weaknesses. Governments need data to determine policy and funding priorities. Employers need data to assess the value of qualifications. And, perhaps most important, students themselves need data so that they can make informed decisions about their preferred place of study and show prospective employers evidence of what they have learned.

But these demands are still often unmet. Without such data, judgements about the quality of higher education institutions will continue to be made on the basis of flawed rankings, derived not from outcomes, nor even outputs, but from idiosyncratic inputs and reputation surveys.

Everyone knows how important data are to me, but I’m also well aware that throwing data into the public space does not, in itself, change the ways students learn, faculty teach and universities operate. We need to get out of the “read-only” mode of our education systems, in which information is presented in a way that cannot be altered. To really change education practice, we need to combine transparency with collaboration.

I am always struck by the power of “collaborative consumption”, where online markets are created in which people share their cars and even their apartments with total strangers. Collaborative consumption has made people micro-entrepreneurs; and collaborative consumption is fuelled by building trust between strangers.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is not only that it serves individual learners and educators, but that it can create an ecosystem around learning. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and more fun. And it can build communities of faculty to share and enrich teaching resources and practices. Imagine the power of a higher education system that could meaningfully share all of the expertise and experience of its faculty.

What if we could get faculty working on curated crowd-sourcing of best teaching practice, and perhaps even across institutional and national borders? Technology could create a giant open-source community of faculty, unlocking the creative skills and initiative of so many people simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for it. And we could use technologies to liberate learning from past conventions, connecting learners in new ways, with new sources of knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another. Maybe that’s something for next year’s teaching excellence award.


For the latest data on tertiary education, look out for Education at a Glance 2017, which will be published on 12 September.

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