Cetls' impact assessed: the sector hardly felt a thing

Hefce-backed teaching programme failed to raise standards significantly. Jack Grove writes

March 15, 2012

An unprecedented £315 million investment that was intended to improve university teaching has failed to raise standards across the sector, a report has concluded.

The report on the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (Cetls) initiative, which was financed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and ran from 2005 to 2010, states that the lasting impact of the scheme will be far smaller than intended.

The centres were launched with the aim of "raising the status of learning and teaching in higher education" by improving practice and developing metrics to reward pedagogic excellence.

But the report by consultants SQW, commissioned by Hefce, says it is "difficult to trace impact at a sector level" or detect "a general enhancement of teaching and learning".

The legacy of the investment rests in individual staff involved in Cetls and a limited number of institutions that embedded pedagogic research in their courses, the report concludes.

Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy for most of the programme's duration, said this "meagre" legacy showed that the £315 million had been largely "frittered away".

"As an example of the failure of public policy in higher education, the [Cetl] programme would be hard to beat," he writes in Times Higher Education this week.

He adds: "The report leaves no room for doubt that the programme as a whole failed in its primary purpose of enhancing teaching and learning in higher education."

The lack of impact stemmed from Hefce's "weak management that magnified the flaws in policy", he writes, resulting in a failure to coordinate the centres.

The report quotes several Cetl leaders who agree with Professor Ramsden's assessment.

One asserts that the "general visibility and value of the Cetl initiative is probably no greater than the sum of all its parts".

Another concludes: "There were 74 Cetls all busily doing their own thing and an opportunity was lost to collaborate to further promote the importance of learning and teaching."

Inherent flaws

Julie Hall, co-chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association (Seda), which promotes good practice in higher education, said that the one-off nature of Cetl funding meant that the initiative was inherently flawed.

"The idea that...significant, time-limited funding for Cetls would impact more widely on curricula, university processes, student experience and pedagogic practice across the sector was misguided, naive and rather a waste," she said.

"The Cetl initiative implied a 'transformational change' agenda because of the size of the funding particularly, but Seda's experience over [the past] 20 years is that 'incremental change' is more effective."

Ms Hall added: "To award Cetl funding to universities which already could demonstrate an advanced track record was also simply rewarding existing good practice.

"It was very unlikely to enhance the work of other less-developed initiatives in cash-strapped institutions."

Others quoted in the report question the short-term nature of the scheme.

"[Our Cetl] has provided a setting that has enabled staff to develop professionally," says one centre leader. "However, there is no post-Cetl progression route. Already [members of] staff have left for posts elsewhere."

The report concludes that Cetls have "not led to material changes" beyond those higher education institutions that received funding, but does mention many positive changes in participating universities.

Judgement 'unfair'

Craig Mahoney, chief executive of the HEA, who was appointed to the post in July 2010, ran a Cetl while he was deputy vice-chancellor of Northumbria University.

He said it was unfair to judge the programme on its legacy as this was not its primary purpose.

"Any university which held a Cetl was very complimentary of its achievements within the five-year period," Professor Mahoney said.

"There is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that this was an effective use of money - there were hugely positive impacts."

The five-year programme led to a total of 2,679 spin-off projects, including small research grants, secondments, fellowships and awards, while 3,435 peer-reviewed journal papers were published, the study reports.

However, Professor Mahoney conceded that the programme could have been designed more effectively.

"When you invest in something now, you have to focus on legacy. Perhaps those questions were not well framed when Cetls were put in place," he said.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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