Centres of excellence fail to transform teaching

July 13, 2007

Study suggests value and impact of costly CETL initiative is limited, reports Melanie Newman

There is little evidence that a multimillion-pound scheme designed to "celebrate and reward excellence in teaching" has had much impact, preliminary research indicates.

In the largest single funding initiative to support the development of teaching and learning, 74 Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) were set up, beginning in 2005-06. By 2010, more than £315 million will have been invested in the scheme, a Government initiative to raise the status of teaching, which has long been the "poor relation" to research.

In a draft report on the impact of CETLs, presented at the Higher Education Academy annual conference last week, researchers at the University of the West of England said the centres had largely failed to develop new ways to reward and recognise good teaching. They said that direct benefits to staff from the schemes had been localised, "extending only to a limited number of closely involved staff", and did not extend to the wider sector.

"There is no evidence that the impact extends to universities that were not successful in winning a CETL bid", according to the research poster at the conference.

Lead researcher Pat Young, a senior lecturer in educational research at UWE, researched 20 CETLs related to health and social care in a study funded through the HEA's Subject Centre for Health Sciences and Practice, which will publish the final report later this year. She found that in some CETLs, the "reward and recognition" brief had "slipped off the agenda" as they focused more on work "specifically related to their field of excellence".

"CETLs had to demonstrate excellence in an area of teaching and it seemed that in some cases they were focusing on that area, so the CETL became a development initiative," rather than one focused on reward, Dr Young told The Times Higher .

There was "considerable uncertainty" within CETLs about how to go about rewarding excellent teachers. Those with clear "reward and recognition" policies fell back on more conventional schemes.

"CETLs have rarely been truly innovative and have tended to rely on existing models of reward and recognition."

Dr Young conceded that the CETL scheme may have fostered a greater sense that teaching is valued. CETL cash paid for improvements to teaching infrastructure, including new buildings, which she acknowledged as a form of reward for teaching staff as well as a benefit for students.

She said the whole CETL policy - in which departments compete for CETL status by demonstrating existing strengths in subject areas - was "flawed by an ideological commitment to ideas of excellence and selection. The CETL initiative is an example of social engineering, aiming to effect piecemeal change."

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said it was too soon to judge individual CETLs' success. "Early feedback indicates that CETLs are having an effect in many areas, impacting on institutional policy and practice, and improving the student learning experience," he added.


A dozen ways to say 'well done'

Higher education institutions use very different definitions of teaching excellence in their teaching award schemes, a study has found.

A study of 30 different teaching award schemes by academics at the Oxford Learning Institute has found 12 different conceptions of teaching excellence in use.

The authors cite widespread criticism of the way in which teaching awards are allocated in the UK, and say that if schemes are to develop credibility they will need to more clearly articulate valid models of teaching excellence on which they are based.


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