Higher Education Academy’s ideals must not die

New UK learning super-agency Advance HE must not lose sight of the guiding ‘academy’ principles of its predecessor, argues William Keenan

September 17, 2018
Source: istock

Whatever traces of the original Higher Education Academy survive following its incorporation into Advance HE, its most precious, most fragile feature – its “academy” – seems doomed.

Almost two years ago, the Bell Review recommended a single sector agency, which merged the HEA with the Equality Challenge Unit and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, a body that became known as Advance HE.

The new triple institutional alliance, in whose hands, for good or ill, the foreseeable future of much of academic life lies, seeks to champion excellence and continuous enhancement in learning and teaching, equality and diversity, and leadership and governance in higher education. Formed in March 2018, its revised structure quietly took effect last month. Advance HE is where it’s at.

By all accounts, the HEA is now defunct, extinct, kaput, a veritable “Norwegian Blue”.

What was founded in January 2003 with such high hopes for an “academy” for higher education professionals has bitten the dust. As with so many bright, new, ambitious, pioneering institutions swallowed up by mergers, takeovers, seizures, vertical and horizontal acquisitions, amalgamations and the like, the HEA has sunk under the weight of “progress”. But what gets lost or left behind in such seemingly irresistible processes of growth and development?

The HEA in its origins had a small-town flavour; a localism; what sociologists call a gemeinschaftliche or communitarian aspect. It “spoke” to the identity and character of its early membership, primarily university academics for whom the “teaching route” was a preferred option to the “research route” as a point of vocational commitment and professional focus.

Although many research-active staff joined up, it is fair to say that extensive publication records or “third stream” income generation were never uppermost in the CVs of the early joiners of the academy. They “came in to teach their subject” and that was the mainstay of their commitment to students.

What mattered most was the promise of the HEA to provide dedicated services to undergraduate classroom tutors whose workloads were primarily pedagogically driven.

The subsequently phased-out “subject clusters” of the HEA were a boon to teaching development, providing collegial networks, workshops and conferences by means of which academic specialists could enhance their skills, exchange ideas and, not least, develop confidence as teachers in the context of the overweening priorities of research agendas within the university sector. The Teaching Excellence scheme attracted those who sought public recognition for their professional talents. 

However, it was not long before a hierarchical mentality evolved within the HEA itself.

The “academy” ethos gave way before the “organisational imperative” as collegial egalitarianism caved in before the drive of the “greedy institution” for status differentiations between members.

In the beginning, there were Fellows; then, shortly, in a rightful extension of inclusiveness, Associate Fellows. But a caste hierarchy worthy of freemasonry eventually appeared – Senior Fellowships; Prinicipal Fellowships. Where would it all have ended had not Advance HE intervened? Directorial Fellowships? Grand Panjandram Fellowships?

Incidentally, membership fees – up to £1,000 – were accordingly set to reflect position on the totem pole. To be priced out of a market is one thing; but to be priced out of an “academy” is quite another.

Who could keep up with the academic Joneses? Every few years a new portfolio to put together on top of everything else; not to mention another sizeable dip into the inflation-hit wallet. HEA “progression” became less and less about actual “coal-face” activities; and more and more about para-pedagogical ones.        

What had happened was that the strategic dimension of higher education institutional management and leadership had come to displace the pedagogical dimension. The subject had become less significant than the corporation. This status consciousness – and its associated postnominal “reward” system – were indicators of an erstwhile academy experiencing organisational mission creep.

The HEA was at risk of becoming a service agency for university governance and managerial control. More and more, pressure to join the HEA was coming from deans and heads of departments.

The “voluntaristic” vocationalism of the early days was giving way to the managerialist regimen of consumer-driven, business-facing higher education. The “portfolio” submissions of university and college staff – and this increasingly included members of registry offices, quality assurance departments, and other administrative sectors – were subject more and more to managerial vetting and approval, in contrast with the previous collegial “sponsorship” emphasis.

Having grown to significantly more than 100,000 members, the Higher Education Academy was likely to transform itself in a bureaucratic direction.

Small may be beautiful; but a large transnational, multitasked organisation such as Advance HE will face considerably greater and more complex challenges than those encountered by the pioneer HEA generation.

It is unlikely that the caste-like hierarchical framework inherited by Advance HE will be rolled back.

It is even less likely that a “republic of scholars” will arise phoenix-like within the new-look institution. However, it is worth recalling HEA origins should we be tempted to think things cannot be otherwise than they are. 

William Keenan is an independent researcher and freelance academic.

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Reader's comments (2)

Any organisation that phased out subject clusters but kept in the Leadership Foundation was clearly showing its pretensions. There is still some mystery in the irresistible rise of Dr G Stoakes to a senior position in its research-facing wing too
Why in heavens name do we continue to fund a huge organisation which no academic actually asked for and which no academic seemingly wants. Having an organisation of any type which is not voluntarily patronised by those which it is supposed to assist, is just fatuous. Most Discipline facing academics have no idea who Dearing was and would care much less for his recommendations. They do, however, object to the continued support of a core of feral pedagogic 'experts' who continually interfere with their engagement of their discipline. The HEA was a control tool; a tool often used against independent administers of their discipline to willing participants in the learning process. This amorphous replacement will be more of the same but at greater cost.

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