Good teachers are key to the making of great universities - Hindustan Times

Good teachers are key to the making of great universities

Apr 29, 2024 11:27 PM IST

To truly fulfil their mission, universities must invest in the right people — faculty who can teach well and empower students to reach their full potential.

Former United States (US) president Barack Obama once remarked, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.” It is a sentiment universally acknowledged — teaching is more than just a profession; it is a noble calling. Aswath Damodaran, professor of finance at Stern School of Business, popularly known as the “Valuation Guru”, once said in an interview, “If there is an epitaph that I would like on my tombstone, it would be, ‘He was a great teacher.’” Yet, despite general reverence, the academic world often seems to undervalue good teaching.

Is good teaching adequately incentivised? (Shutterstock/ Representational image) PREMIUM
Is good teaching adequately incentivised? (Shutterstock/ Representational image)

Is good teaching adequately incentivised? When it comes to career trajectory, universities tend to prioritise research over teaching. So, are universities doing enough to reward good teaching? Not by a long shot.

The impetus that compels good teachers to persevere is the profound joy they derive from the vocation. Ask any skilled educator, and they’ll likely tell you that teaching is not just a job, it’s a source of therapeutic fulfilment. It is about the rapture they find in helping students navigate problems, it is about visages in the classroom reflecting dawning comprehension, and it is being told years later — by unrecognisable former pupils — how much they benefited from their classes.

Universities sometimes undervalue quality instruction, prioritising research to improve their rankings. In many institutions, positions often favour candidates with extensive publication records, overlooking teaching abilities. It is time to address the elephant in the institution. Universities must reward the core teaching role, bestowing on it a distinct hiring and promotion track.

This is not to remotely suggest that listing research as a priority is flawed. However, prioritising research at the expense of teaching devalues the core mission of universities. Teaching quality, student engagement, mentorship, and support services are all vital components of a well-rounded educational experience. Yet, traditional rankings often favour research over teaching, reflected in citations, funding, and academic reputation. To address this imbalance, ranking bodies should consider recalibrating and increasing the weight for teaching quality. They can do this by incorporating unbiased student opinions and even considering publishing separate ranking lists focused solely on teaching quality. To achieve this, they will need to appropriately define what constitutes teaching quality and develop robust assessment methodologies that account for diverse teaching approaches and learning outcomes.

Does being a good researcher mean one is automatically good at instruction? Not all good researchers are good teachers. Good researchers might have deep knowledge of their niche area of study. Good teachers possess a blend of technical proficiency and strong interpersonal skills, including passion, patience, adaptability, empathy, and creativity and are excellent communicators. Having faculty with industry work experience and the ability to teach well is the most desirable situation, especially for undergraduate students, most of whom enrol in universities with the goal of working in companies or venture into entrepreneurship. The UGC’s decision to make PhDs optional for assistant professors acknowledges this reality.

Many institutions expect their faculty to juggle multiple responsibilities, including generating journal articles, teaching, grading assessments, and contributing to administrative tasks. However, the law of comparative advantage suggests a more strategic and beneficial approach. Universities should allocate teaching-focused roles to faculty members who excel in instruction and mentoring while assigning research-focused roles to those with strong research skills. By relieving good teachers from the burden of generating numerous journal articles, their teaching potential can be unleashed. Additionally, this approach facilitates some introverted researchers who may lack the communication skills or patience for teaching but enjoy spending hours on researching to excel in that sphere.

What can be the way forward? Incentivising good teaching, of course, will sustain excellence in education and encourage more individuals with teaching prowess to pursue academic careers. The declining appeal of certain MBA programmes, as students increasingly favour industry certifications, could signal a broader trend affecting other fields like accounting. However, universities offer unique advantages that certifications cannot match. With their meticulously crafted degree programmes, universities promote academic rigour and analytical skills. University life encompasses a vibrant environment where students access a plethora of opportunities for personal growth, academic exploration, and social engagement.

To truly fulfil their mission, universities must invest in the right people — faculty who can teach well and inspire, guide, and empower students to reach their full potential. The time has come for universities to recalibrate their priorities, shifting the focus from pursuing research accolades to simultaneously nurturing teaching excellence. Distinct teaching-focused and research-focused roles would best serve both students and the industry.

Sherwin Fernandes teaches finance, statistics and economics at a university in Dubai. The views expressed are personal

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