Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

What does tertiary teaching need: Visionaries or pragmatists?

Sharon Fraser and Mechelle Cheers
Centre for Academic Development and Flexible Learning
University of Western Sydney Nepean
    Teaching in higher education is influenced by the visions of many. Those in positions of authority construct the institutional framework in which others must function, and it is assumed that the vision, constructed by the few, will be shared by all. Leaders of academic units are those entrusted with the task of ensuring that the vision of educational excellence is realized. The assumption is that when provided with an environment that nurtures an interest in teaching and the collaborative problem solving of educational dilemmas, academic staff will take up the mandate to become good teachers. Does this really occur in practice? Isn't it the reality that overworked 'leaders' don't have the time (or interest?) to take up suggestions to improve the standard of teaching commonly recommended in the literature (eg Ramsden, 1998). We believe today's crisis ridden academic environment, brought about by 'massification' of education and dwindling resources, requires a more pragmatic approach. One which does not assume academic leaders have a deep commitment to take on the 'noble cause' (Candy, 1993) of teaching improvement and understands the contextual issues facing staff at the coal face. In this paper we will offer an alternative framework designed to practically assist academic leaders to systematically move their staff towards good teaching practice.
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Australian universities are under intense pressure to operate more efficiently, and, with reduced resources, a more competitive marketplace and the massification of higher education, increase the quality of both research and learning outcomes. At the same time, there is the need to incorporate new teaching and learning strategies, informed by educational research and seeking to satisfy marketplace demands, whilst integrating new information technologies into the curricula. This rapid push for reform of educational policy and practice has resulted in an environment of insecurity and uncertainty, one in which most academics are focussed more on survival than innovation. This is the system within which academic leaders must operate, "...supporting, managing, developing and inspiring academic colleagues" (p4. Ramsden, 1998) whilst acting as an agent of change in teaching, research and administrative practice. Effective leadership is critical in bringing about change in such an environment, though how does a leader proceed effectively?

Current rhetoric emphasises the need for transformational leadership (Burns, 1978) whereby "...leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation" (Burns, 1978:20). The functioning of the organisation is then 'transformed' as members who share a vision, work with commitment and purpose towards a common goal. When translated into the academic environment, it is assumed that a leader who creates an environment that is supportive and nurturing of teaching, one who leads by example, will 'enable' staff to teach more effectively. Such an assumption is flawed for three reasons:

1. It ignores current university context

Today, more than ever before, academics find themselves the subject of intense government and societal scrutiny. Finances are tight, job security no longer assured and morale low. Though quality in teaching and learning is demanded, promotion is still very strongly tied to the research quantum. To be excellent in either research or teaching is demanding, to be excellent in both is often impossible. Expecting that academics embrace an ideal that requires enormous time and effort, when the reward is minimal or even intangible, is unrealistic. Not until the structural components of academic work and the organizational system have changed, can leaders work to change peoples' attitudes and beliefs (Williams, 1992). In the present climate of crisis management, it is not assured that a charismatic leader will be able to shift more than the enthusiastic few.

2. It assumes 'teaching' is the priority of academic leaders

Such a leader requires not only an understanding of educational theory, and have practical expertise, but also the interest, time and ability to inspire staff to share the vision and become committed to making it a reality. Unfortunately, it is true for many academic units in higher education, those who gain headship often do so by virtue of their research and seniority. It is not necessarily true that such leaders will have the personal power and authority, vision, trust and leadership to lead staff through institutional restructuring (Feeney, 1998) in the way envisaged by the transformational leadership model. It must be remembered that such leaders need not only bring about change in teaching and learning, but often also teach their own students and supervise postgraduate students, whilst revitalizing the unit's research and doing extraordinary things with reduced Government support and resources, in a highly competitive marketplace. It is unreasonable to ask too much of one individual.

3. It assumes that staff will take up the commitment

In reality the number of academic staff who embrace the vision of quality teaching, including responding to the strategies that the leader might employ, such as modeling best practice, encouraging collaboration and teamwork, and providing the means for professional development (Ramsden, 1998), are few. The 'truth' is, staff who enthusiastically embrace a leader's overt commitment to teaching are those who have already intrinsically sought ways to improve their own teaching. However, these are not the ones who will hamper change, nor is it only they who will bring about a significant increase in the quality of learning outcomes or educational experience. It is the large majority of academics, who have little interest in teaching, little motivation to change, or even an understanding that what they are doing could or should be improved, who need to be moved.

What can be done - a proposed model for change

In practice, strategies that 'enable' academic staff to teach more effectively, and consider the student's entire educational experience, will not bring about large scale movement of all staff, from less than acceptable or ordinary behaviour to good or excellent. More than "....an environment for academics to learn how to teach better, an environment where interest in teaching is nurtured...." (Ramsden, 1998:64) is required. Rather, what is needed is a strategic approach using a framework which incorporates aspects of the collegial model of organizational structure (Bush, 1997), combined with the systematic imposition of goals and benchmarks, and recognition of the skills and talents of their staff members. Consideration needs to be given to issues such as the staff-student relationship; acceptable standards of behaviour; and student needs outside the classroom, from first year through to graduation and beyond. Good teachers need to be 'good' beyond the classroom, and guidelines must be established to ensure this is the case. By seeking to harness the strengths of the disparately talented and interested people who make up an academic unit and by appealing to the pragmatist in all of us, it may be possible to achieve small goals, which over time, result in good university teaching.

A proposed model for changing teaching and learning is outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Proposed model for changing teaching and learning practices.

In implementing the model, a leader should consider the following:

  1. Be aware and understand the macro environment (eg DETYA imperatives, employer demands, good practice in other universities) and how it impacts on education directions, both within the institution and on the Academic Organizational Unit (AOU).

  2. As a first step at the AOU level, organize an audit of education practices, and processes. Structure the data/information gathering around benchmarking, both the students' education experience and the staff experience of teaching. Data should be both quantitative (eg CEQs, GDS) and qualitative (eg student focus groups, staff fora). The analysis should reveal potential areas for action.

  3. Involve as many staff as possible, not just the 'enthusiastic' few in determining education priorities, as well as minimum standards of education practice, but also make clear what you expect staff to do and if relevant by when. This can be done by organizing, at the end or beginning of each year, a staff meeting/forum that is dedicated entirely to discussing education issues. As additional support, seek the assistance of your Academic Development / Teaching and Learning Centre.

  4. Start by being realistic in your expectations of staff and about what changes can be made within the AOU. Starting with achievable projects or minor changes can often be more successful than attempts to make rapid large-scale change. For example, responding to student feedback that indicates staff are 'never available for consultation' could result in the development of a set of 'housekeeping' rules related to teaching and learning.

  5. Once priority areas for change are agreed upon, undertake a 'reality check' to determine what can be done effectively in the short term, what resources are needed and available, what support will be given to staff who have carriage of individual projects as tasks.

  6. Have a small group of staff work on practical ways to implement the changes/develop innovations. It is critical to keep staff grounded in the practical, so the strategies for implementation are designed to be simple and fit within the AOU's education context.

  7. Establish formal monitoring and evaluation procedures so that as strategies are implemented there is the opportunity to 'fine-tune' or change.
Effective leadership is essential in bringing about a change in the quality of the teaching and learning environment in universities. However, though the task may be large, a leader should not consider it essential, or even possible, to 'turn it around' all at once. Although strategies that support collaboration and cooperation are useful, a leadership approach that is pragmatic, which means dealing with the immediate and the possible, will initiate a process more likely to lead to large-scale change.


Burns, J.M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.

Bush, T. (1997). Collegial models. In A. Harris, N. Bennett & M. Preedy (Eds.), Organisational effectiveness and improvement in education. UK: Open University Press.

Candy, P. (1993). HERDSA - supporting the improvement of university teaching. In J. Bain, E. Lietzow & B. Ross (Eds.), Promoting teaching in higher education: Reports from the National Teaching Workshop. Qld: Griffith University.

Feeney, A. (1998). Criteria for leadership in times of rapid change. In L.C. Ehrich & J. Knight (Eds.), Leadership in Crisis? Restructuring principled practice, essays on contemporary educational leadership. Qld: Post Pressed.

Ramsden, P. (1998). Learning to lead in higher education. London, NY: Routledge.

Williams, R. (1992). Strategies to transform school systems: The leadership edge. Canada: EduServ Inc.

Please cite as: Fraser, S. and Cheers, M. (2000). What does tertiary teaching need: Visionaries or pragmatists? In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fraser.html

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