HEA must return to roots to survive budget cuts

The Higher Education Academy must regain sight of its original priorities and reconnect with its members, says Sally Brown

May 1, 2014

Source: Patrick Welham

Can the Higher Education Academy, the body set up to champion excellent learning and teaching in higher education, survive the draconian cuts to its budget over the next three years?

As Times Higher Education reported (“Whither HEA as councils cut off the cash?”, News, 10 April), about 100 of the HEA’s 180 staff could lose their jobs and the organisation’s central funding, worth £13.5 million this year, is likely to be gradually reduced to zero by 2016-17.

The cuts to the HEA’s budget come at an important time for university teaching. Students in England are paying more than ever before for their university degrees and can reasonably expect academics to take their teaching roles very seriously. Yet the rise in fees has been accompanied by a reduction in teaching grants, and many universities say that financial constraints are likely to mean less rather than more money being made available to support teaching.

The HEA was formed in 2004 by bringing together the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and the Learning and Teaching Support Network of 24 subject centres. It has remained funded for a decade, which is longer than many would have predicted as it looked highly vulnerable in the “bonfire of the quangos” at the start of the current coalition government.

A future without core funding may sound bleak or even impossible; but perhaps the HEA could learn from the story of its predecessor – the ILTHE – and organisations such as the Staff and Educational Development Association, to ride out the storm.

The ILTHE, where I worked from 1999 to 2004 as director of membership services, was set up as a membership organisation. Although it received modest start-up cash from the four UK funding councils, it aimed to be self-funding through subscriptions within 10 years. From a standing start in 1999, it grew to 17,500 members and was well on the way to being self-sustaining at the time of the 2004 merger.

Many mourned the loss of the ILTHE, which had been built on a conviction that professionalisation of higher education teaching could be achieved voluntarily, as long as members and higher education institutions – which often paid membership fees for their staff – could see its value. In a short space of time, building on the SEDA’s earlier schemes, the ILTHE set up the accreditation process on which HEA fellowships are now based, including recognising successful completion of new lecturers’ programmes as a route into membership.

We worked hard to encourage academics who cared about teaching to join. We also established a strong range of member benefits including a journal, a book series with Routledge and a website with fresh teaching and learning content, largely written by members. Importantly, we also offered networking opportunities through an annual (paid for) conference and encouraged free attendance at local events at least twice a year in each of 11 regions across the UK. We did all this – as well as setting up the national teaching fellowship scheme – on less than £4 million a year and with a staff of initially a dozen, moving up to fewer than 100.

Academics engaging with the ILTHE were passionate about their potential to transform individuals and teaching within a community of practice. Many universities and colleges actively encouraged their staff to join, making it a performance indicator for appointment and promotion.

The HEA was able to build on this foundation, and on the sterling work undertaken by the 24 much-missed discipline-based subject centres, an important locus for practical guidance and for the embedding of scholarship of teaching. However, the centres were closed by the HEA in 2012 under a previous round of cuts to its budget.

Much has been achieved, particularly through the HEA’s Change Academy, which helps staff to work through a period of strategic change; partnerships with Jisc TechDis, the advisory service on technologies for inclusion; and substantial projects such as the recent Marked Improvement initiative aiming to improve assessment. But the organisation has also faced criticism.

In my view, the HEA grew too large, too fast and lost sight of many of its original priorities. If it is to outlast the cuts – and I very much hope that it will – it will need to work with all the friends it can muster, including its own fellows and national teaching fellows. The successful alignment of fellowships with the UK Professional Standards Framework must be sustained, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency must no longer duck (as it did this year) the issue of publishing data on the proportion of teaching staff with teaching qualifications and who have obtained professional recognition through the UKPSF and other routes.

As well as seeking consultancy work and alliances with other nations offering professional recognition for university teaching, the HEA must go back to its roots and – as the ILTHE did and the SEDA still does – foster meaningful relationships with its members, valuing and listening to them as individuals and building its membership base. Then it might be able to pull through.

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