NPC/04/07/B: Universities UK, Standing Conference of Principals, Towards a Professional Framework of Teaching Standards

by Tim Brown

Executive Summary

We acknowledge the need to move the focus towards teaching quality in higher education and welcome this consultation after much concentration on research excellence. We also support the desire of the government to enhance teaching excellence but at the same time we do not see clear transparency in teaching excellence from the proposals outlined here. Within higher education there is no comparison to that of further education in terms of how academics are trained to teach students. No formal qualification or certificate is required, merely completion of a probationary period, which will be monitored by qualified academic staff. The difficulty in lecturers failing a probationary period does not illustrate a significant step towards gaining highly qualified teachers in higher education because they have not undergone rigorous training and assessment. Many of the proposals we see here lack focus on the output of what can be achieved by teaching standards. While we support the need to promote good practice and pedagogy in teaching, this has to be transparent and show benefit to the student, especially the higher expectations of the taught postgraduate. We also see no mention here of postgraduate research students involved in teaching. This is an important part of their continuing professional development and they also have a vital role in the modern day higher education system.

Much of our response has outlined the need for teaching quality to correlate with positive feedback from student satisfaction and also demonstrate the quality of graduates. At the same time we insist on structured training and continuing professional development of teachers in higher education, who need to develop accompanying competence in teaching alongside their research.


The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is a charity with the aim to advance, in the public interest, postgraduate education in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated student representative bodies from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers' unions as well as other bodies relevant to postgraduate education.

A. Are the principles set out in paragraph 11 appropriate and sufficient to enable the development of a professional standards framework?

There is a need to promote professionalism in higher education as well as the value of teaching excellence but also the need to credit much of the teaching excellence already in existence. We agree there needs to be a national framework of standards and sharing of good practice. However, the significance or relevance of such standards will not be justified unless they show evidence of positive feedback, demonstration of learning and enhanced ability from the student. At postgraduate level this is more of a challenge where they are coming back into higher education at a more advanced level and so they will be seeking to further enhance an already significant level of experience and skills. Our suggestion would be therefore that the framework is evidenced on the needs and interests of the postgraduate but also those who require high calibre graduates with more than a first degree and how they require them to apply their skills.

Staff attainment should be reflected for levels of academic ability including postgraduate research students, lecturers, senior lecturers, readers and professors. At each stage in their academic career they will enter higher ranks of teaching and it is essential that they are provided with appropriate support, training and accreditation at every level. It cannot be assumed that experienced academics naturally withhold all the teaching abilities necessary, though they may be world class researchers. We strongly encourage training in academic leadership for those more experienced, where not only teaching will be relevant but supervision of research students, managing other researchers and junior academics.

B. We recommend that the Higher Education Academy be invited to undertake the development work on a professional standards framework. How might a Higher Education Academy best work with institutions and other stakeholders in order to develop standards that would be of most benefit to the sector?

Our first point of response to this would be that we should seek the interests of the student whom teaching is being delivered to. Teaching has to consider what the student's current abilities are expected to be (which will be extremely diverse at postgraduate level with a mixture of age, culture, professional experience and previous qualifications), what the expectations are when they complete a course and how that new knowledge will be best delivered to them. This may have an important link with research and how that will be effectively disseminated to possibly generate more knowledge. All of this will require continual review and development as the nature, needs and demands of the student constantly change. At postgraduate level, the ever growing part time community is exceeding more than 60% of postgraduates in the UK and we see this creating further necessary targets for the effective delivery of a course integrated within another lifestyle. The whole process of bringing forward the framework will require the active inclusion of student representation and possibly some surveying and evidence gathering from students.

We strongly believe true success in teaching is demonstrated when heartfelt positive responses from the student on the teaching they have received testify to the advances they have achieved in knowledge of a subject and their own personal development. A further stakeholder to consider in this is the employer, society, the economy and the international market. Their expectations of teaching in the UK will have further implications on how standards are set. Teaching standards should demonstrate the benefit of higher education, including postgraduate education. A further motive is to raise the standards of UK higher education to attract an even wider postgraduate international market.

We agree that standards should be not too prescriptive and allow institutions to develop their own teaching excellence within their own setup. Minimum expectations and models of good practice will certainly help in this process however to help justify whether an institution is delivering standards to meet the interests of students who will begin to take a customer point of view. This will be essential in terms of the need for institutions to give their students the confidence they can deliver what they "write on the tin". Failure to do this will result in an increased overload of complaints reaching the independent adjudicator, which would not be desired.

We identify the need for subject specific continuing professional development, although scholarship will vary from subject to subject as well as between institutions. This will involve the transfer of knowledge from research, the outside world or teaching with a vocational approach. All these areas need to be assessed critically to see that each course has teaching excellence for the desired outcome.

We certainly recognise the levels of accreditation by the academy and wish to see more done in this area. Further to this we recognise the need to acknowledge teaching originality and the scope to allow flexibility in reaching attainment. At the same time we still see the need to have mentoring and monitoring of teaching progress that will correlate with student satisfaction and demonstrate success in delivering knowledge to a required level.

E. How might a framework of standards and expectations for continuing professional development be used to support and promote teaching quality whilst minimising burden on individuals and institutions? How could the benefits be demonstrated to prospective students and other stakeholders?

Above all we would wish to see a balance of teaching and research where applicable and also ensure the two compliment each other where necessary. The expectations of many postgraduates will be that they are going to an institution with reputable research if they are undertaking a course that involves research. Research excellence, however, is only one selling point and it says little about what the institution will offer to the student for their own personal benefit. Dedicated administration, learning support and tutoring services to deliver to the student will all play a vital role in the effective delivery of their course and contribute to their professional development. A further issue we will also raise is that there is nothing to incentivise the production of resources from academics such as textbooks, electronic learning or hands on practical teaching tools where appropriate. These play an important role in disseminating knowledge into an appropriate form to benefit a wider community, which would otherwise restrict the use of contributions to knowledge available.

In cases where research is and is not required for postgraduate courses, there is also a need to engage with industry, public services or other parts of society that are recruiting the graduates from the courses. Engagement with higher education is vital in understanding the needs and demands of those recruiting them and there is a need for closer collaboration to better tailor courses to equip graduates but also to effectively transfer knowledge.

F. We welcome any further comments on aspects of this consultation, in particular on our understanding of professionalism and our suggested definitions of professional standards.

Our final point would be the issues around postgraduate research students who teach. We see no evidence of their continuing professional development included in the process, yet they are significantly increasing in number. NPC supports teaching as beneficial to the postgraduate for many reasons [1][2][3], although this cannot be attained unless there is something to recognise their achievements, to provide the necessary training or to meet appropriate pay conditions for their work. We see equipping postgraduates to teach who wish to as a vital element of postgraduate research training and part of the development process for those continuing towards careers in academia. From the employment charters you will see that we strongly support the need for:

  • Induction, orientation and development courses in pedagogy of teaching and other essential generic skills that should be attained by postgraduates who teach. This will include health and safety, special needs aspects and institutional policy on academic conduct.
  • Ongoing peer support and guidance to both ensure they are sufficiently meeting the requirements but also to assist in their personal development.
  • Local level training from a supervisor of the course they are delivering to ensure they have the necessary knowledge of the specific course that they are delivering.

Finally we strongly recommend that training of this kind is incorporated into the training and development of the research student who should look broadly at their professional development through the research they carry out, the research and generic skills they undertake but also the employment and extra curricular activity they are involved in since their experience will need to be applied to one single curriculum vitae following qualification.


  1. AUT/NUS/NPC Employment Charter for Postgraduates who teach,
  2. NATFHE/NUS/NPC Employed Postgraduates Charter,
  3. EIS/NUS Scotland/NPC Scotland Employed Postgraduates Charter,