Academy lacks credibility with HE chiefs, review shows

National teaching-skills body has yet to prove its worth, say some v-cs. Rebecca Attwood reports.

February 7, 2008

The flagship national body set up to enhance university teaching "lacks credibility" with many university heads, according to a review of its impact.

Although the majority of academics see the three-year-old Higher Education Academy as a necessary agency with an important role to perform, some vice-chancellors feel it has "yet to demonstrate the case" for its continued existence.

The HEA, which costs £24 million a year to fund, has many strengths but is not yet widely perceived as adding "significant value" to the sector, and has yet to realise its full potential, the evaluation by Oakleigh Consulting found. The basis and purpose of the HEA's York headquarters, which employs about 80 staff, required "further explanation", the consultants said.

Bob Burgess, who was named chair of the HEA last year, said the evaluation helped confirm the importance of the academy's work to the sector. He said the academy was continuing to strengthen its work.

The evaluation said that the HEA needed a "more sophisticated" approach to strategic communication, and to "significantly raise its game" when it came to managing relationships with heads of institutions.

It also needed to become "much better at listening", said the study, but universities also had a role to play.

"We are clear that the academy needs to 'push' much harder to get its outputs into institutions. The quid pro quo is that we would encourage all institutions to critically self-assess their own processes for drawing on the academy's wide range of resources," said the report, which was commissioned by the four UK funding bodies.

Some academics cited in the report felt the HEA's focus on the student learning experience was inappropriate, and that its proper remit was enhancing teaching quality.

It said the academy had a positive impact, including on individual and departmental teaching practice. The sector values the HEA's network of 24 subject centres, set up to support teaching and learning in different disciplines, it found.

However, there were problems with the way some centres were resourced and funded, with several having a high resource base relative to the numbers of academics they were designed to serve.

The consultants also reported "residual dissatisfaction across the academy's staff base regarding the process of formation and the style of leadership by some senior managers".

A spokeswoman for the HEA said the academy was reviewing the disciplinary coverage of its subject centres and their funding model, and that the York office worked behind the scenes to make much of the academy's work possible.

She added that the report also talked "with some enthusiasm" about the capability and structure of the senior team now in place, and said that staff surveys had shown increased satisfaction.

Professor Burgess insisted that the HEA had no plans to shift its emphasis away from students. "The student experience is at the heart of what we have achieved to date and what we will set out to do in the future," he said.

Academics consulted in the evaluation praised, among other things, the HEA's National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, its network of pro vice-chancellors responsible for teaching and learning, and its accreditation of programmes for training academics in teaching.

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