Leader: They never came to the boil

The dearth of funds to invest in teaching today makes the Cetls' meagre legacy all the more disappointing

March 15, 2012

The idea of £315 million being put up with relatively little monitoring or oversight to raise the status and standard of teaching in higher education seems fanciful in 2012.

But in 2003, when the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning were conceived, the public purse was not in the vice-like grip of austerity. The dearth of money for such projects today makes the meagre legacy of the Cetls all the more disappointing.

When the funding came to an end two years ago, there was a widespread feeling that the programme had gone out with a whimper.

Although the Cetls were a diverse bunch and did some good work locally, as a group they were excessively inward-looking (an accusation that crops up too often for comfort in higher education) and largely failed to raise the status of teaching across the sector.

The impression was that many universities used them to gain competitive advantage, something that would probably be even more acute in today's "marketised" system.

The centres' failures have now been confirmed in a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Writing in Times Higher Education this week, Paul Ramsden, former head of the Higher Education Academy, says the £315 million investment was "frittered away". He adds that Hefce failed to properly oversee the programme, a complaint that chimes with concerns raised by Cetl staff at a conference in 2010.

Asked what advice they would have given funding chiefs if they were to start the programme afresh, one said that Hefce should have found a way to make institutions accountable, "not just to take the money and run". Another said that it should have provided "support from the outset towards developing the legacy of Cetls, given such huge investment".

One of the criticisms was that the programme failed to learn the lessons of previous teaching development initiatives, extending the cycle of disappointment.

Some of the errors were structural. If Cetl funding had involved multiple rounds of bidding, some argued, the quality of bids might gradually have improved. Instead, funding was allocated at the outset, with each of the 70 or so centres receiving recurrent funding of between £200,000 and £500,000 a year.

The failure to allocate a portion of the cash for central coordination and support has also been highlighted, as has the abrupt way in which funding came to an end. However, the criticism is not limited to structural issues.

Some complain that the centres did not focus sufficiently on known educational problems, such as large class sizes and quality of feedback. Hefce's report adds that many Cetls found it "more challenging than expected" to engage academic staff. Some of these problems may have been unavoidable, particularly in a sector that is often resistant to the idea that good teaching can itself be taught.

But with money so tight, the acknowledgement that such a landmark project - with a landmark price tag - failed in its overall objective risks entrenching the problem of underinvestment in the area.

The Cetls scheme was flawed, but when the Hefce report notes that "the legacy of the programme rests largely in individual staff", it is not a wholly damning verdict. That expertise - the commitment and passion for teaching - will be vital in the turbulent years to come, wherever it is found.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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