£500m has ‘superficial’ impact on improving university teaching

‘Shiny’ projects and disjointed policies criticised in report on Hefce spending

July 31, 2014

Source: Alamy

Skin deep: some pilots resulted in ‘high-profile projects with limited effects’

Spending worth about £500 million for improving university teaching has produced “disappointing” results because of a lack of joined-up policymaking, senior sector figures have said.

In a report on Higher Education Funding Council for England spending that has been specifically directed at improving teaching over the past 15 years, senior university leaders, funding body chiefs and heads of specialist organisations say that its impact has been limited to “local successes”.

Fifteen senior sector leaders were interviewed on condition of anonymity for the study by Lancaster University’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation, which summarised their responses.

“The results of very considerable expenditure and effort appear to be patchy and in jeopardy of diminishing in difficult and turbulent times,” according to the interviewees in the report, The Role of Hefce in Teaching and Learning Enhancement: A Review of Evaluative Evidence, which was published by the Higher Education Academy on 17 July.

“Individual people and some institutions have sometimes benefited in various ways, but systemically the impact has been superficial,” it adds.

Most respondents suggest that there was a sense of “shooting in the dark” when it came to improving teaching and learning, with initiatives seldom driven by what the sector wanted or required, the report says.

Some pilot-based “beacon” projects, such as the £315 million Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning that ran from 2004 to 2009, are criticised strongly.

“Some respondents suggested the political desire to be seen…opening big ‘shiny’ manifest projects sometimes resulted in expensive high-profile projects with limited effects,” the report says.

The result of a “Christmas tree” approach to policy, such centres may have briefly raised teaching’s profile, but their aims were “ill-defined or contested, meaning mission-creep and difficulties in evaluation”.

Other projects, such as the £30 million Teaching and Learning Research Programme that ran from 1999 to 2009 and conducted research on improving learner outcomes, also had problems, the report says.

It goes on to criticise a “bid-and-deliver” approach to funding projects, as this can create “bidding fatigue”, which makes it difficult to persuade good candidates to give time to the process, especially when their chances of winning become “unreasonably low”.

Distributing teaching improvement money on a per student basis (nearly £100 million was handed out in this way between 1999 and 2005) proved more popular, allowing institutions to pursue specific goals. However, some noted that institutions often use this money for their own purposes, the report says.

The most cost-effective mechanism for improving teaching was the National Student Survey, which costs about £2 million a year to run, despite “some deleterious effects”, says the report, which did not consider the largely Hefce-funded HEA itself.

The report’s authors suggest that Hefce is likely to step back from its role as a controller of teaching enhancement via the allocation of specific funding as its budget declines over the coming years.

Instead, universities will work together to set up centres of excellence in different areas of practice, with this “regionalised model” funded by Hefce on the condition that certain targets are met.

The National Union of Students, which is praised for its “small but effective interventions”, will also become a more significant player as it has been “adept at generating considerable amounts of activity on limited resources”, the report says.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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