Do we need a Higher Education Academy?

Probably not any more, according to my recent piece for Research Fortnight (subscription required to view, but a version of it appears below):

Ten years ago the Higher Education Academy was set up as a single UK-wide organisation to support teaching and students’ learning experiences. It combined the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which pushed an ideological agenda that all lecturers should become registered teachers, and which had enjoyed a fairly disastrous reception across most of higher education, and the network of subject centres, which had been received much more favourably. Many of the subject centres were led by successful international scholars and they went with the grain of most academics’ beliefs, seeking to support them within their disciplines and accepting that teaching and learning were inseparable from research and subject content.

Combining two organisations with such different cultures and personnel was never going to be easy. Through a series of painful restructures and changes of senior staff, the Higher Education Academy eventually created a working model, but deep divisions remained under the surface and hampered the development of a coherent reputation and value for money. During the first few years many areas continued to be over-staffed and inefficient; there was always at least one interested external body that fought against their reform.

It faced other challenges too. First was the need to adapt services to the differing needs of the four home nations. It also had to cope with frequently changing funding council priorities and directly competing and much better-resourced initiatives such as the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, a scheme which ultimately failed to deliver its promised benefits. It had to win over divergent communities such as educational developers, Universities UK and professional subject organisations. And at the same time it had to establish standing as a credible research-led organisation.

The first evaluation of the HEA in 2007, by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recognised that it had had to overcome major challenges in establishing itself as a distinctive organisation and balancing expectations from a wide-ranging and demanding set of stakeholders. It found that the academy had had a positive influence on teaching and the student experience, but that it had yet to realise its full potential. It had to work harder at engaging with partners and customers, in evaluating impact and value for money, in managing subject centres more consistently, and in campaigning for better learning and teaching.

But progress towards these goals continued to be hampered by irreconcilable vested interests. It became abundantly clear that proper change would require radical surgery, and this led to a plan for a leaner organisation and sweeping restructure. The subject centres, despite some significant successes, would have to go; they were simply too devolved for efficient management and much too expensive. The plan was implemented between 2010 and 2013 and the HEA has since become more efficient and more focused.

It came as something of a surprise to me, therefore, to see that a more recent review, published in June 2014, has identified issues that are familiar from several years ago. On the positive side, the HEA’s greatest success has undoubtedly been the establishment of the UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching in higher education, and its associated and expanding professional accreditation services. Other achievements of note include a continuing record of support for individual academics through their disciplines and a range of survey services.

But, according to its reviewers, it has yet to establish better communications with institutional leaders, particularly in pre-1992 universities. It has failed to demonstrate impact clearly enough and still tries to spread itself across too many areas. It has not had notable success in influencing policy, except in some key areas such as its pro-vice chancellor network, and the quality of its research is variable. It comes across as an organisation that is still more concerned with managing its internal tensions than meeting its customers’ needs.

What of the future? The Higher Education Academy announced in April that its public funding (which accounts for 95 per cent of its £16 million annual income) would end in 2016. Its business development model for a sustainable organisation involves increasing subscriber and consultancy income, but it has already fallen short of its targets in this respect. Its chances in a competitive environment for higher education consultancy must be regarded as slim, unless it can appoint staff with immediate experience of the realities and uncertainties of a private sector business model.

More fundamentally, do British universities need a Higher Education Academy any more? Higher education institutions have come a long way since 2004 in improving the quality of their students’ experiences and engagement. Australia abolished its equivalent organisation a couple of years ago. The British version provides services, knowledge and expertise that institutions think are important. However, these valued functions could be delivered by opening up the remaining market for specialist support services to a range of providers. A small office attached to the funding councils could support competitive tendering by firms and universities for projects. The day of a central, taxpayer-funded body to support the enhancement of teaching in higher education may well be over.

Paul Ramsden is a key associate of PhillipsKPA, an educational consultancy based in Melbourne, Australia. He was the founding chief executive of the Higher Education Academy from 2004 to 2009.

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