The growing impetus for lecturers to acquire teaching qualifications raises the risk that higher education institutions will cut corners in order to sign up their staff, scholars have warned.
In one case at the University of Roehampton, an academic has alleged that she was pressured into applying for a teaching fellowship and that the university approved her application even though she did not submit appropriate documentation, as the institution prepared for its teaching excellence framework submission.
This comes as higher education systems across the world are increasingly wrestling with the problem of how to judge teaching quality.
Researchers’ concerns centre on the fact that the Higher Education Academy, the primary source of teaching accreditation in the UK and, increasingly, internationally, devolves the decision-making process around awarding fellowships to institutions.
In the UK case, a former professor at Roehampton claims that she was “very directly pressurised” into joining the HEA by senior management in order to boost the university’s written submission to the TEF.
She has alleged that a senior manager at the institution made her a fellow of the HEA despite the fact that she “contrived” to send her application in late and had only one of the two required referee reports. She said that the same thing had happened to at least one other professor at the institution.
“All of this is possible because the HEA, in a cost-cutting exercise, delegates the rights to make people fellows to universities. It appears to undertake no checking and relies on the honesty of the universities,” said the academic, who wishes to remain anonymous and sent in a whistleblower report on the incident to the university’s council.
Kelly Coate, director of King’s Learning Institute at King’s College London, said that the HEA has “created a scheme which is difficult to scale up while remaining faithful to the requirements within it designed to ensure standards”.
“As the status of teaching has grown across the sector, and the focus on teaching qualifications has intensified, it is important that the regulatory framework keeps up with the pace of change,” she said. “I am not convinced that it [has].”
Dr Coate added that, while King’s has “very rigorous procedures” for its HEA accreditation scheme, in order to ensure that the exercise is meaningful, the process “requires quite a bit of time and resource”.
“I am curious as to how some institutions seem to have scaled up their accreditation schemes so that they can get large numbers [of fellows] through,” she said.
Roehampton’s written TEF submission states that 89 per cent of its academics have “HEA recognition for their learning and teaching” while 9 per cent are “working towards it as a probationary requirement”. It added that 49 academics are senior fellows and 15 are principal fellows.
A spokeswoman for Roehampton said that the university had “enlisted independent auditors to review” its process for establishing HEA fellows, who concluded that there was “no evidence” to support the concerns raised.
“The University of Roehampton encourages staff to work towards the Higher Education Academy’s fellowship scheme,” the spokeswoman said. “The university has a robust process as part of the accreditation application.”
As part of its international expansion, the HEA now has subscribing institutions in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.
An HEA spokesman said that the organisation is “still in discussion with Roehampton University about an individual’s application for HEA fellowship”.
“The HEA delegates the authority to institutions with accredited programmes to award HEA Fellowship. The process for accreditation is rigorous and ensures consistent requirements and standards across the sector. The HEA requires institutions to appoint external examiners and reviewers, who are senior or principal fellows and are suitably experienced in making fellowship judgements for other institutions,” he said.
“The HEA also visits institutions and sits on review panels as part of the annual quality assurance cycle. Policy and process for accreditation are reviewed on an annual basis, with input from the sector, and any points raised during our investigation will feed into this process.”