Bright sparks cross the divide

February 18, 2000

The old versus new university divide makes no difference to the amount of innovative teaching taking place. Harold Silver and Andrew Hannan have found that it is history that counts

History appears to weigh heavier on some universities than others. So, if you want to be an innovative teacher, does it matter where you are in terms of old and new universities? Not necessarily, is our conclusion, after two years of studying 16 universities.

The legacy of the pre-1992 binary divide does not entirely account for difference in either teaching innovation policy or practice. More important perhaps is the culture in the university or department and the attitude of the university and its leaders towards change.

This is shown in the varying degrees of enthusiasm towards national funding to improve teaching and learning. Some universities see it as an opportunity, others as a pressure.

For innovators, the question is how to make the most of the opportunities while being faithful to their institution's historical commitments and aims. That history might include, for example, mergers of universities with former colleges of further education, nursing, teacher training and other specialisms.

Some universities have not overcome their legacy of multiple sites. Others have seen the need to adjust their intakes to part-time, mature, local and other students.

In our research on innovations in teaching and learning, we interviewed 221 people at 15 universities in the first phase. This was followed by an in-depth study of five universities (four of them visited in the first phase), involving a further 117 interviews. We also held six focus-group discussions, in which 30 lecturers in took part.

The second-phase universities included two old, high-profile research universities, one 1960s technological university, one former polytechnic and the Open University.

All four campus universities saw change and its management as important. They cited the impact a new vice-chancellor or pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching could make. They mentioned the supporting role education development units and heads of schools or departments can play.

There was a general railing from the bottom up against greater bureaucracy and, in the older universities, against the shift from a collegial culture to one more managerial and commercially driven. The relationship between such changes and what was happening nationally was understood at the top of the hierarchy, but was far less clear to those who felt the impact on their daily teaching lives.

Innovators and keen teachers were aware of the tension between teaching and research and raising research revenue. Paradoxically, this tension was less evident in one old university with a firmly established research profile than in those parts of a new university anxious to gain more research recognition.

Individual teachers in less research-oriented universities spoke of "a see-saw" of policy and "mixed messages" on teaching innovation. One pro vice-chancellor in a research-oriented university talked of "the national obsession with research".

In many institutions there was widespread suspicion of what a teaching and learning policy meant in practical terms, for example the prospects for promotion for someone committed mainly to teaching. Even so, around the country there were schemes coming increasingly into operation to recognise good (including innovative) teachers.

Structural changes, such as clustering large numbers of departments into schools, were seen mainly as top-down ways of streamlining administration and possibly promoting inter-disciplinary research and new curricula.

Staff saw such centralising changes as undermining the importance of subjects. Interviewees spoke of the persistence of attitudes that made it impossible to disseminate initiatives in teaching and learning, within or beyond their course or department.

The appointment of deans or heads of departments with a strong commitment to research was seen as compounding the difficulty of obtaining the necessary moral or resource support for teaching or assessment innovation.

One strong message was that, whatever the policies and good intentions, they can be frustrated by structures, attitudes and the weight of history. However powerful the changes imposed from outside or chosen from within, histories count.

Harold Silver is visiting professor of higher education and Andrew Hannan is reader in education at the University of Plymouth. They have co-directed the project on Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, part of the ESRC's Learning Society programme.

For more information visit the project website at


Teaching innovation is most likely to take place when:

* The innovator has encouragement and support from the head of department, dean or other person in authority

* The institution has a policy establishing parity between research and teaching and learning, including for purposes of promotion, and the policy is reflected in practice

* Colleagues and people in authority show an interest in disseminating the outcomes of innovation

* Resources are available through the department, an innovations or similar fund and an education development unit.

Innovation is most likely to be obstructed by:

* Low esteem of teaching and learning, compared with research

* Lack of recognition and interest by colleagues and people in authority

* Institutional or other policies and action plans laying down firm directions that preclude individual, alternative initiatives

* Excessively bureaucratic procedures for approval, support and resources

* Quality assessment procedures that inhibit risk-taking.

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