Excellent prospects for best-practice teaching

July 20, 2007

Hefce director Liz Beaty hails CETLs' beacon role in making England's higher education system 'the envy of the world'

Archbishop Desmond Tutu last month opened the Gateway to Hope building at Liverpool Hope University. The event was part of a wider civic celebration in Liverpool that saw the Archbishop give an address entitled "Ours is a Moral Universe". Here was an African, Anglican Archbishop giving a civic address in a Roman Catholic cathedral packed with people from across Liverpool's diverse communities. The opening ceremony emphasised the importance of education in a global context.

The gathering of students, staff and dignitaries at the Gateway to Hope building witnessed the Archbishop's power to inspire. The building itself is equally inspirational. It brings together in one beautiful and well-conceived setting the services that students need to support their learning, including two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning: WriteNow and LearnHigher. These CETLs are collaborations across a number of institutions. WriteNow is led from London Metropolitan University and includes Aston University as well as Liverpool Hope. LearnHigher is the largest collaborative CETL, comprising staff from 16 institutions with differing missions to develop resources for learner support. CETL funding has allowed groups of staff to focus their energy on researching and developing their teaching and has supported them in their efforts to share ideas and resources with their partners.

The Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning programme is funding 74 CETLs at a cost of £315 million. The purpose of the programme is to reward excellent teaching and to support institutions in further developing their practice to improve learning for students and raise the status of teaching. It is a large fund, but the challenges are equally large, including designing pedagogies for a diverse student population and harnessing new technology. The CETLs are just two years into their five years of funding, but hugely impressive outcomes are already visible. They all have well-equipped learning spaces built with capital funding as part of the CETL package, and growing communities of practice are providing scholarly evidence for effective approaches to teaching.

In visiting many institutions and talking with staff across the higher education system, I know that the CETLs have harnessed energy for teaching and rewarded individual staff for their success in achieving this status. But development takes time, and we should expect a gradual culture change rather than a one-off effect from this funding.

Each CETL has an evaluation strand as part of its work, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England has commissioned an evaluation of the programme against its aims. We expect that this evaluation will both inform continuous improvement and help us to decide whether to invest in more CETLs. To be effective, CETLs must first act as beacons for change within their own institution, and then serve as catalysts for further investment in broader changes, based on the evidence of their effectiveness.

In England over the past 15 years, we have been carefully building an architecture for teaching and learning enhancement that is the envy of the world. The full picture includes the Higher Education Academy with its subject centres; funding for institutional learning and teaching strategies; and the individual awards of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme.

Together these programmes offer incentives and support for educational research and development across our higher education system. Each part of the system is geared to add value to the others. Many CETLs have National Teaching Fellows on their staff and the HEA both supports CETLs and uses their outputs to disseminate good practice.

The place of the CETLs in this broader framework is to provide exemplars of what focused investment can produce. They have the time and resources to invest in change, to take risks with innovation and to investigate what works. They must build capacity for educational development that normal funding levels can rarely achieve.

Transforming learning environments for the 21st century is not something that can be done by individual teachers. Enthusiasm and a scholarly approach is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Change in teaching and learning must be strategically managed and involve people across institutional hierarchies, disciplinary and functional boundaries. So Hefce's enhancement funding works at multiple levels to support the higher education community within institutions and across the system.

The CETL event at Liverpool Hope reminded me of how important it is to celebrate success in higher education. As Archbishop Tutu knows, one man cannot change the world but he can inspire a generation that will. Our world is changing, and higher education must engage with the challenges. The CETLs must inspire a generation of teachers to feel that a focus on student learning is worthwhile, for without effective higher education our global developments will have neither strong foundations nor wisdom.

Liz Beaty is director, Higher Education Funding Council for England.

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