Behind the scenes at the academy

A letter to this publication criticising the National Student Survey led to the abrupt departure of a senior official from the organisation presiding over teaching and learning in the UK and a storm of protest. John Gill reports on the politics and clash of personalities that have cast a shadow over the Higher Education Academy's credibility and independence

August 7, 2008

In an ideal world it would be a paragon of independence, untroubled by the influence of either the Government that funds it or the sector it serves.

In reality, this vision for the Higher Education Academy, the much-needed champion of teaching and learning, is just that - a mirage that dissipates on closer inspection.

This, perhaps, was the conclusion reached by Lee Harvey, who served as the HEA's director of research and evaluation until he parted company with the academy in a storm of controversy earlier this year.

Of course, we would never hear such an admission from his own lips; his departure came not only with a payoff, presumably a generous one, but a gagging clause, too. But those who know him and also know the intimate workings of the academy say that Harvey, to whom academic principles were all and politics was someone else's problem, was ill-suited to the tightrope walking required at the HEA.

The organisation occupies a somewhat uneasy position in the sector. The bulk of its funding comes from the Government and subscription fees paid by vice-chancellors, but the bulk of its membership are rank-and-file lecturers. Because of this, the demands made of it, and the expectation of loyalty, are many and varied (see box).

As one insider put it: "Harvey is a maverick; the extraordinary thing is that he was appointed in the first place. His track record was known - he is very much an academic - and something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.

"When you work for one of these bodies, you have to exercise a certain level of discretion - you try to find a way through the conflicting pressures. I don't think (he) would have even thought about things like that."

Harvey, an expert in student surveys, resigned from his post in May, less than a year after he had joined and three months after he had been suspended by Paul Ramsden, the chief executive of the HEA. His crime was to have written a personal letter for publication to Times Higher Education criticising the National Student Survey, which is administered not by the academy but by the Higher Education Funding Council for England - and thus, by extension, the Government. The reason given for his suspension was that he may have breached a clause in his contract requiring him to obtain his employer's permission before writing to the press. But rumours quickly began to circulate about other possible reasons for his departure.

Perhaps inevitably, these focused on politics and personalities.

The talk about personality clashes was fuelled by reports of previous friction between Harvey and Ramsden. Harvey had, in fact, lodged an official grievance against the chief executive last year. The complaint had not been resolved at the time of his suspension.

Further clouding the issue was the fact that both men were personally involved in pioneering predecessors to the NSS, which was the target of Harvey's criticism in his letter to Times Higher Education. The survey that is now used in Britain is a direct descendant of one that Ramsden was closely involved in developing in Australia in the 1990s. At about the same time, Harvey, who was based at the University of Central England, was pioneering the use of student surveys in the UK.

In this sense, the pair were professional rivals. Some people could have seen Harvey's letter as a veiled attack on Ramsden's work, which was preferred to his own as the prototype for the NSS.

Perhaps this is to read too much into what was a critical but far from blistering letter, which at its strongest branded the NSS an "inadequate improvement tool".

Nevertheless, such factors were seen as lending credence to the view that Harvey was too much of a maverick to prosper in his politicised post.

What is perhaps more significant, and potentially a greater long-term risk to the HEA's reputation, is the distinct whiff of outside involvement in the decision to crack the whip. Throughout the episode, rumours have persisted that Harvey's suspension was influenced by the Government - even though there is no paper trail to prove it.

As one senior academic who knows both men put it: "It is only rumour, but it doesn't matter whether it is a rumour or not, that is what people think.

"I can't believe that Ramsden did this off his own bat. He would have been piqued by the letter because the NSS is based on the course-experience questionnaire that he helped to invent back in Australia, but I don't think he did it of his own volition."

This, then, may be the central problem facing the HEA, for Harvey's suspension and subsequent departure have given the impression, correct or not, that the organisation is not independent.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, says the founding vision of the HEA as an organisation that could investigate issues without influence or prejudice has been put in question by the recent episode.

"The sector believes that the academy is accountable to it, but in reality the great bulk of its funding comes from the Government, and so it is bound to be susceptible to Government influences, too.

"My view is that we need a body that takes a neutral view, something such as the King's Fund in health or even Ofqual (the new Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator), which monitors school standards. If the academy cannot do this, then we may have to think afresh," he said.

If it comes to that, the obvious starting point would be a reconsideration of its senior staff.

Ramsden was appointed chief executive in January 2004 on what is believed to have been a three-year contract, renewable for two more years. Since the controversy erupted, several HEA staff members have contacted Times Higher Education to criticise his leadership, suggesting that Ramsden spends a lot of his time in London rather than at the organisation's headquarters in York and that he communicates little with staff beyond those in the senior management group.

One well-placed observer said: "He is a rather remote sort of character and is just not a natural leader of men. If it was a university, it wouldn't matter so much because there would be lots of other people around him; but in a small organisation like the HEA he's going to know all the staff, and the staff are all going to know him. There's nowhere to hide in an organisation of that size."

It is likely that the HEA would have been under close scrutiny even if the row over Harvey's suspension had never happened.

The academy absorbs £24 million a year from four UK funding councils, plus contributions from individual higher education institutions. Those who help to pay for its running will expect to see a decent return on their investment.

The extent to which it is delivering that return was questioned in an interim evaluation report earlier this year. The report, commissioned by the funding bodies, found that the HEA "lacks credibility" with many vice-chancellors and that some "felt the academy had yet to demonstrate the case for its continued existence".

The study, conducted by Oakleigh Consulting, also reported "residual dissatisfaction across the academy's staff base regarding the ... style of leadership by some senior managers". It also noted, however, that most university staff supported its continuation and said that it had "not yet reached its full potential".

In this climate, the departure of Harvey has been an unwanted and, some would argue, avoidable embarrassment for the academy.

An email leaked to Times Higher Education suggests that the senior management team was well aware of how the episode could damage the HEA's reputation. The memo from Sean Mackney, the deputy chief executive, was sent to members of the academic council shortly before Times Higher Education broke the news of the suspension. In it he says: "Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we anticipate that a letter and possibly a news story will appear in this week's THE on the subject. We are still endeavouring to keep the details of the matter as confidential as possible."

For some, the Harvey affair has also spelt out in black and white the disparity between the leverage that the Government seems able to apply to the organisation and that of HEA's 20,000 or so fellows, most of whom are university lecturers.

Philip Burgess, elected member of the HEA's academic council, has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of this apparent outside influence.

"Vice-chancellors (who control institutions' membership of the academy)," he says, "are used to being told what to do, so it is no skin off their nose. And while it will worry the people who actually teach students, they don't have the opportunity to do anything about it.

"They can refuse to join the organisation, but that will probably make it very difficult for them to get promoted. They can write letters saying they think it is a disgrace, but the organisation ignores them. They can threaten to vote for candidates who are anti the leadership in elections, but there won't be another election for three years and it's only four out of 16 posts on the academic council that are elected, and we're ignored anyway," says Burgess.

"The HEA has lost respect and credibility, but they don't seem to worry about that at all. The tragedy is that we really do need an organisation to champion higher education - that's what the Oakleigh report said - but this organisation can't possibly have that role because the Government knows that all it has to do is snap its fingers and they will jump.

"When this story broke in Times Higher Education," Burgess adds, "the HEA issued a statement saying that it was committed to academic freedom, then just brazened it out.

"It is very hard to get through that sort of carapace, but if they are allowed to get away with it then sooner or later a vice-chancellor will think, 'Oh, I'll do the same thing,' and then academic freedom really will be dead. This is the stuff of which disasters are made."

Despite this apocalyptic view, it would be wrong to write off the organisation's future just yet, as there are other signs that it is still valued by the sector.

When the academy was established in 2004, it was compulsory for universities to subscribe to the organisation for an initial three years. However, Times Higher Education understands that, now that period has lapsed, almost all institutions have renewed those subscriptions of their own volition.

Cynics may suggest that there is an element of inertia about such things, since it is easier to maintain subscriptions than to win them, or that, in the case of research-intensive universities, the HEA is a useful badge with which to make a public display of commitment to teaching.

However, with Lee Harvey gone and the international outrage that followed his suspension subsiding, the HEA may have weathered the storm - for now.

THE ACADEMY'S MISSION

The Higher Education Academy was created in 2004 to replace the Institute for Learning and Teaching, which was a national body controlling professional standards in teaching.

The ILT was established after the Dearing report of 1997 recommended that greater priority be given to teaching, but it had only four years to work at this task before it was replaced by the HEA.

The institute differed from its successor in that it was "owned" by its 15,500 fee-paying members, alongside their employing institutions. In contrast, the HEA has a wider remit and is "owned" by vice-chancellors and principals, who subscribe to it on behalf of their institutions. University lecturers who belong to the organisation are now known as "fellows".

The HEA says its mission is to "help institutions, discipline groups and all staff to provide the best possible learning experience for their students".

HEA LOOKS BEYOND HARVEY AFFAIR

The Higher Education Academy has never commented on the suspension and subsequent departure of Lee Harvey, except to wish him well when he left.

It has also declined to comment on the suggestions that its reputation has been tarnished by the episode or by the criticism made of its leadership.

However, it has released a statement from Paul Ramsden, the chief executive, that suggests that it wants to draw a line under the affair and look to the future.

In the statement, Ramsden says: "There is plenty of evidence that our universities and colleges are taking the quality of teaching and the student experience more and more seriously.

"It's core business for them. Teaching and student support are important to everyone - academics, universities and colleges, employers, governments and students themselves.

"The HEA's new strategic plan seizes the opportunity to set the agenda for the next three years. By supporting teaching, influencing policy, sharing good practice and building knowledge about what works, the academy provides a focus for all those who share our ambition for UK higher education to provide the best student experience in the world."

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