As their numbers grow, national teaching fellows are finding a voice and realising their worth, says Pat Leon.
National teaching fellows may not command the salary nor sponsorship deals of footballer David Beckham but, when the university bidding wars begin to house 70 centres for excellence in learning and teaching, they will certainly be hot candidates for the transfer market.
The award of 20 more fellowships worth £50,000 each at a ceremony in London next Tuesday brings to 80 the number of national teaching fellowship (NTF) holders over the past four years. They represent a growing pool of teaching talent, especially as the scheme expands to 50 fellows a year in 2007. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has strongly hinted that the presence of a national teaching fellow in a department or faculty will add cachet to bids to become a centre. And with centres carrying the promise of £500,000 funding a year for five years, plus the chance to seek an extra £2 million in capital funding, award-holders may find they have a price tag on their heads.
This could prove difficult for them. Although universities and colleges enter candidates for the competition and eagerly publicise a winner, fellowships are awarded to individual lecturers, not departments, to pursue their pet projects to improve student learning. So far, only a handful have moved jobs. Most have stayed put and used their money to buy time out from other duties or to hire researchers and consultants.
But although the money is finite, national teaching fellowships are for life. This has led some winners to feel that, as their numbers grow, their status should be recognised more formally. Some fellows even believe that they could form a fourth force in the new teaching academy, which is expected to launch early next year.
The teaching academy is designed to streamline the work of the three agencies from which it will be formed: the Learning and Teaching Support Network, the Higher Education Staff Development Agency and the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which manages the NTF scheme. A small band of fellows - National Voice - last month travelled to Leeds to lobby Leslie Wagner, retiring vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and interim chair of the academy, about a role in the academy. Wagner listened but was non-committal.
Angela Clow, a 2002 awardwinner from Westminster University's psychology department, says: "At present, the fellows are a disparate group of people who meet occasionally and discuss their individual projects. We would like to see them grow into a much more effective group that could articulate a 'voice' from the community of teachers at the coalface. This would require the fellows to organise a system of democratic representation and meaningful debate between themselves and across their institutions and beyond.
"This is a vision for the NTFs that is shared by many of its recipients.
Not to grasp this opportunity would waste the energy and potential of this new group of people within higher education."
Not all award-winners are so optimistic about their influence. Many winners still smart from the academic snobbery towards teaching. Mike Tinker, senior lecturer in physics at Reading University who won a fellowship in 2002, says: "Research-based universities pay lip service to the notion that teaching and research have equal importance, yet their actions deny this."
Funding is the root cause of the imbalance, he says. "Research is seen as a generator of income and teaching a consumer. The national teaching fellows are at the centre of the debate since they include many whose expertise is in research into teaching. Such activities have no obvious home within the current funding model," he says.
A look at the annual lists of fellows shows that many winners have strong disciplinary roots. Winning the award, however, can push them towards education development.
Peter Hughes was a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Sunderland University when he won his fellowship last year. But his department was closing. He moved to Durham University's Centre for Learning, Teaching and Research in Higher Education last January. He is now busy getting the university's postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching off the ground.
"Although this has in some ways taken me away from what inspires me most, working with students, I'm hoping that my more strategic role will have an impact in other ways - through enthusing other academics," he says. "It's important that education developers and researchers are people who know something about teaching (and learning) from a lot of first-hand experience. Lots of them don't."
In recognition of the jockeying interests, Hefce suggests changing entry criteria for the competition. Liz Beaty, director of teaching and learning at Hefce, has put forward three categories of prize: one for learning support staff, one by subject and one for "rising stars". Institutions will be able to nominate three contenders.
Sally Brown, membership director for the ILTHE, meanwhile, is lobbying for a category for lecturers reaching the end of their careers "so that their expertise can be shared and not lost".
Whether teaching's golden oldies will get recognition is open to debate, but for Bob Rotheram, 2002 award winner from Nottingham Trent University, the NTF scheme is in its infancy. "It operates in a climate that is often hostile to teaching. That's why it was started. It'll take quite a few years for it to become fully established and for other government moves to play their part in making teaching more respectable in higher education."
Fellows' details: www.ncteam.ac.uk/ntfs/index.htm