A major study has concluded that teaching standards are lower in the US’ most prestigious universities than in the country’s less celebrated higher education providers. For the paper, published in Higher Education, 60 higher education experts were sent to observe 587 courses at nine US institutions, ranging from some of the most prestigious in the country to broad-access rural colleges.
Despite leading universities’ eminent faculty and sizeable budgets, the assessors found teaching quality was actually stronger in less prestigious institutions. “The results contradict the common assumption that higher prestige institutions in the US provide better in-class educational experiences,” says Corbin Campbell, associate professor of higher education at Columbia University and one of the co-authors of the paper.
The in-class evaluators assessed teaching in three ways: on subject matter learning, which is how lecturers are able to pass on core ideas in their subject; prior knowledge, which assesses how tutors are able to support students who come to the course with different types of knowledge; and supporting changing views, which assesses how staff work when students have a conflicting understanding of a subject.
Dr. Campbell says that in the first area, there was no difference between prestigious and less prestigious universities, which was surprising given the research expertise of their staff. For the second two, the authors found the less prestigious institutions scored higher. “Interestingly, when I talk about my findings, members of the ‘public’ are surprised, but when I tell faculty who teach in prestigious institutions, they aren’t at all surprised,” adds Campbell.
Her explanation is that teaching isn’t valued in prestige varsities in the US, where the reward structures focus on research and pull best faculty away from teaching. For this study, prestige was determined by an institution’s position in the rankings produced by US News and World Report.
Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, says the study’s findings about the way in which ‘prestige’ distorts understanding of the quality of higher education are correct. “We need to find ways of providing information about the quality of degrees without them being distorted in this way,” he says.