Education developers are key to the government's teaching agenda, which could explain their rise to power.
A growing cadre of specialists is quietly invading the corridors of power in universities and colleges in the hope of hitting a sensitive government education target: the enhancement of teaching and learning.
Their mission has the backing of politicians via the higher education funding councils, and their confidence has grown as they have won hearts and minds. These lecturers or former lecturers in the arts, sciences or humanities, are education developers. Many of them might disagree with the label. Some work in academic departments. Others work in central units with names such as staff development, teaching and learning, academic practice or quality enhancement.
Cliff Allan, programme director for the Learning and Teaching Support Network, set up in 2000 as a result of the Dearing report, said: "The units have all got different names, and they are sometimes difficult to pin down because there may be more than one. A big university may have a learning and teaching centre, an education development centre and a staff development unit, and they all have overlapping interests."
Chameleon-like, the units can also change name and shape overnight as teaching policy initiatives, funding and pro vice-chancellors come and go.
Brenda Smith, head of the LTSN generic centre, said: "Under the Quality Assurance Agency, for example, there were more quality assurance units. If it goes and there is more institutional audit and quality enhancement, we might see them merging into teaching and learning units."
The LTSN is mapping all the units, centres, committees and individuals involved in teaching and learning, be it research or hands-on help, to see how they can work together. Professor Smith said: "To try to reach them is phenomenally difficult. They are such a diverse bunch."
The generic centre has built up a database from other organisations (see below). It sent out a questionnaire last week asking what they do and what they need. "We are also asking them to identify other units that have emerged to try to get a fuller picture of what's around," Mr Allan said.
Education development units have proved a great help for the LTSN's 24 subject centres since their launch in 2000. "Many academics are discipline-focused, which is where the subject centres fit in. There's a lot of cross-fertilisation of ideas on learning and teaching going on," Mr Allan said.
But support on the ground is patchy and often linked more to an institution's quest for funding, desire to achieve success in QAA subject reviews or empire-building than to a changing attitude to teaching. There are still divisions between old and new universities, and old and new staff, as to the wisdom of embracing innovation. There may also be a suspicion, if not fear, among traditionalists that the old order could topple under a cadre of teaching specialists.
Sally Neocosmos, chief executive of the Higher Education Staff Development Association, said: "All institutions are struggling to develop coherent strategic plans in estates management, administration, research, etc and I guess teaching and learning came late into the game. Teaching and learning does not lend itself easily to rigid structures. People are grappling with ideas, and it's an area where flowers can bloom unexpectedly."
Since 1998, universities and colleges have had to produce learning and teaching strategies to receive money from the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund, run by the Higher Education Funding Council. The TQEF ends on July 31 and, although it is expected to continue for a further three years, there may be strings. With a new quality assurance regime in the offing and a government determined to push its widening participation and employability agenda, learning and teaching is in the spotlight.
Estelle Morris, secretary of state for education, said in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England in November: "The quality of teaching is the chief factor in determining whether students gain from higher education. I look to the council to continue to invest in programmes designed to raise the quality of teaching."
Ms Morris has set a July deadline for Hefce to submit a strategic plan on what it and higher education in general need to do to enhance teaching quality.
This flurry of activity signals good news for education developers, who have found their ideas and experience more and more in demand, particularly with the rise of the Institute for Learning and Teaching and the LTSN.
The ILT has been active in trying to professionalise lecturing and fostering research through its oversight of the teaching fellowship schemes and its small grants programmes. It has drawn on the expertise built up by members of the Staff and Educational Development Association, the Society for Research into Higher Education, the Association of Learning Technologies and Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland organisations.
Sally Brown, ILT membership director, said of the various organisations:
"They are often complementary, sometimes overlapping and occasionally competing. They may have different missions but we are seeing a lot of activity."
Professor Smith said: "As the ILT accredits more and more programmes, a whole new generation of academics is coming through with different expectations of support for their teaching... people are recognising the importance of helping student learning."
According to a Hefce study, Analysis of Strategies for Teaching and Learning , published last July by Graham Gibbs of the TQEF's national coordination team, most institutions were prioritising ILT membership and staff development in their learning and teaching strategies. Professor Brown said that the ILT had received 11,500 applicants and had accredited 106 lecturer training courses.
The QAA's subject reviews also raised the profile of education developers as they involved every department in the country being assessed on teaching quality. Managers sought support from education developers, many of whom saw a conflict of interest in their ideas of "enhancing" teaching and the QAA's idea of scoring it.
David Gosling, who convenes the Heads of Educational Development Group, conducted a survey of members in 1995 and repeated the exercise in September 2000. Professor Gosling found huge growth in the range of units and the work they did. In 1995 he had responses from 23 units, in 2000 he drew more than 53 - 63 per cent of those approached (see right).
"The centres are becoming critical catalysts for change. They are the linchpin for their university's strategic and policy approach to learning and teaching."
David Baume, former Seda chair, said the learning and teaching scene was changing so fast that it was hard to get an accurate view. "It's like mapping a tornado. It's turbulent and expanding. As more and more universities are finding education developers valuable to their missions, their status rises. Universities are hard-nosed, they don't just fund units and centres out of charity."
The regional view and a guide to acronyms
Head of the Centre for Lifelong Learning
University of Glamorgan
"In Wales, vibrant networks have emerged around themes of good practice, research, and electronic delivery in teaching and learning.
"This might be the power of devolution. But it reflects frustration with underfunding of education innovation as compared with other UK regions. Despite this, Wales is developing a distinctive record. Examples include curriculum and staff development through partnerships with further education colleges, compacts with secondary schools, a cross-sector credit framework, and using managed learning environments to reach rural communities."
Director of the Education Development Unit
University of Ulster
"Northern Ireland is good testing ground for further and higher education collaboration because it has a relatively small and single framework. Managing diversity and interdenominational issues in the classroom and in the curriculum is an important issue."
Director of the Centre for Academic Practice
"Quality enhancement has risen to the top of the education development agenda here.
"There is a strong network of education developers that has received targeted funding from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, most recently for effective use of ICT in teaching and learning and in support of education development."
TQEF : The Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund. It has three strands:
- Individual: 20 annual awards of £50,000 for winners of the national teaching fellowship scheme
- Subject: establishment of the Learning and Teaching Support Network linking disciplines via 24 subject centres to a generic and a technology centre
- Institutional: each institution has put in place a learning and teaching strategy.
Seda : The Staff and Educational Development Association promotes innovation and good practice. It covers four main areas: accreditation; conferences and events; networks and services to members; publications. It awards small grants to research projects.
Hesda : The Higher Education Staff Development Agency is recognised by government as the National Training Organisation for staff in higher education. It provides strategic advice, specialist resources and professional services.
It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals. It includes education developers, library and information specialists, CIT experts, curriculum developers and others, working alongside academic staff.
LTSN : The Learning and Teaching Support Network links 24 subject centres at universities. A generic and technology centre is located at the York headquarters.
ILT : The Institute for Learning and Teaching is a membership organisation aimed at professionalising teaching and learning and encouraging innovation.