Credibility of UK’s teaching fellowship process under scrutiny

Scholar claims she was pressured to sign up to Higher Education Academy and did so without correct documents

July 19, 2017
Curvy road ahead sign

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.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

The HEA requires two referees' reports. This is an absolute requirement, so how can Roehampton claim that their 'independent auditors' found nothing wrong? What were the credentials of the 'independent auditors'? Did they actually understand the HEA requirements and how accreditation systems work? Does Roehampton think it's OK not to keep to HEA accreditation requirements? What does this say about overall standards at Roehampton? Lots of big questions not answered in this piece.
The basic tenant of this article is to cast doubt over the credibility of the HEA accreditation process based on a number of incorrect points and a single 'alleged' concern at the University of Roehampton. This makes no contribution to the endeavour of recognising and enhancing the standard of teaching, learning and research in the sector and serves only yo undermine the credible academic scrutiny that underpins all our work in higher education, least of all the approach to accreditation that has been developed over time. It also fails to consider the potential harmful impact of unproven allegations about systems to recognise and support the quality of teaching in a sector that is continually having to face increased accountability and diminishing resources. The contempt shown to requests to be accountable for the quality of personal teaching practice draws us back twenty years to pre Dearing! In my work across the sector I find that most academics are proud to have the opportunity to achieve recognition and to become a Fellow, a Senior Fellow or a Principal Fellow. I have been an accreditor for the HEA since its conception and have worked with many institutions to support both the accreditation and recognition processes. Achieving accreditation is rigorous with a multi layered quality assurance systems to assure the Academy that institutions meet the accreditation criteria. The process has always been based on peer evaluation and in the case of the accreditation of programmes and CPD schemes the Academy recognised the growing expertise within the sector and the fact that institutions wished to take a greater responsibility in making judgements about their own staff. This shift was nothing to do with economics and finance related to the HEA. 'Scaling up' the size of accredited schemes has to a large extent happened organically as institutions have increasing numbers of staff with fellowships (particularly as the numbers of Senior and Principal Fellows have grown) and have integrated accredited schemes into other teaching and learning development initiatives within the institution. With only one allegation, which is not upheld, it is confusing to understand how we have got to a position of interrogating with such ferocity the integrity of HEA accreditation, the judgement process and the role of the externals. I am left contemplating that maybe there are still some academics in their 'Ivory towers' who are determined not to be held accountable and who are are getting rattled at the relentless onset of accountability measures (welcome to the real world!)... or maybe there is another aspect to this and we do not really know the full story. In my mind, whichever it is, it is not a credible argument.
I was a member of the team that awarded the original senior fellowships of the HEA, prior to the revision of the UKPSF and the accreditation of institutional schemes. I can assure you, that proved to be a very challenging task, but it taught all of those involved, how difficult it is to create the 'perfect scheme'. As DVC, I was responsible for the introduction of an accredited scheme and the requirement for all staff to receive recognition. This did not mean reduced standards. In fact in the early days, we had one or two cases that were not awarded by us but who were then recognised by the HEA. The latter acted swiftly to ensure this could not happen again. No scheme is perfect especially when it relies on a group of people having a common perception of what 'meeting the standard' looks like. We have the safety measures in place - more than one reviewer, external examiners, chairs of panels, but even that will not prevent mistakes. A few years ago I did suggest that a group should be established where we could do some cross-institutional calibration. It did not happen at the time but may be now that recognition for teaching is becoming so important, we can take some lessons from the rigour of the TEF assessment process and undertake such an exercise. I appreciate the HEA maintains a watching brief for the quality of provision but that does not help those involved at institutional level to understand the interpretations of the standards by the wider higher education community. People who still have not accepted that students have the right to demand excellent teaching, will not appreciate the value of recognition, or that they have a duty to improve their performance and a personal responsibility for the success of their students.

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