Has the student experience improved as a result of the new emphasis on university teaching and attempts to link funding to classroom excellence?
Over the past three years there has been much talk about the need to loosen the research stranglehold that has dominated higher education, possibly to the detriment of teaching.
Accordingly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced in 1995 its first fund for the development of teaching and learning (FDTL). So far 63 projects have been paid for in universities and colleges around the country to the tune of Pounds 14 million, with the objective of improving student learning.
But have they made any difference and when the money dries up, will any lasting change have been brought about?
The first evaluation of FDTL is now complete and a report, just published by independent consultants, concludes that the quality of the projects ranges from excellent to poor, and identifies project management as a key concern.
A lack of clear objectives was also highlighted, but nevertheless in general the report finds that the rationale for FDTL is sound and that in the main it has achieved what it set out to do. This is despite the fact that so far, the methodology of spreading good practice in teaching and learning through focusing on the disciplines "remains unproven".
The FDTL projects are the first attempt to reward teaching excellence - as judged by the Teaching Quality Assessment outcomes.
David Baume, a member of the national coordination team for FDTL, said:
"The trick over the next few years will be to get a balance between discipline-specific and generic innovation. But there is no doubt in my view that academics identify most strongly with their disciplines. History is different to geography is different to accountancy."
Mr Baume, co-director of the centre for higher education practice at the Open University, was also in no doubt that classroom practice had improved as a direct result of the projects. He said: "It's early days, but as coordinators we see many developments being carried into the classroom. Some change is even institution-wide."
It stands to reason, he says, that if people are given time to think critically about what they do, develop new approaches then try them out, practices will improve.
But is it enough? Peter Ashworth of Sheffield Hallam University's learning and teaching institute, is more sceptical.
He said: "The kind of change that is needed is much more radical than anything the FDTL can bring about. At the moment research into higher education is very marginal. What is needed is a marked shift that results in that kind of research being regarded as a natural part of academics' work, so that research and teaching become part of the same job."
Pedagogy is just as contentious and open to scholarly attack as any other discipline, he said. But many educational developers tend to reinforce the idea that it is an instrumental rather than scholarly activity. This in turn encourages a surface approach to problems and individuals tend to get bogged down in curriculum development without addressing the big issues.
Until that cultural shift occurs, he said, and while teaching and research continue to be compartmentalised, FDTL can only tinker with the problem.
He said: "There will only be pockets of interest. And universalisation of findings can only be thin."
The evaluation report concludes that phase two of FDTL is likely to offer better value for money because of the more rigorous selection procedures now in place. It does acknowledge, however, that the real impact of the projects will depend on their successful implementation, and warns that dissemination is "fraught with difficulty".
* Evaluation of the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning, by the Higher Education Consultancy Group, www.hefce.ac.uk