Experience is everything

Paul Ramsden on the Higher Education Academy initiatives adding value to teaching practices and student learning

June 12, 2008

Times Higher Education is only partly right in describing the Higher Education Academy's role as "supporting and enhancing university teaching" ("Controversy continues as HEA director leaves post", 29 May).

Our job is to work with individuals, subject communities and higher education institutions to support them in improving teaching and the student experience. We add value by acting as a "network of networks", covering academics, subject areas, senior managers and institutions across the UK, and helping them learn from each other. This networking achieves change that no single institution or individual could accomplish on their own.

This potential is realised in our new strategic plan, written by practising academics from the HEA's subject centres. Consultation on the plan showed overwhelming support for our task of supporting higher education in providing the best possible learning experience for all students. It is a bold plan, which has a five-pronged approach to transforming the student experience: evidence-informed practice, brokering knowledge, strategic change, influencing policy and raising the status of teaching.

Our legitimacy comes from being in close touch with academic practice. Two thirds of my colleagues are based in universities and colleges or seconded to our York office. More than 2,000 academics contributed to the work we will publish in July on how higher education institutions reward teaching in their promotions policies. Our 24 subject centres are rooted in academic practice, responding to the real needs of academics in subject communities.

The UK Professional Standards Framework was developed for everyone involved in teaching in the sector; it has no equal in the world. The academy fellowships were a response to the view expressed by a majority of academics that the membership scheme of the old Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education should be replaced by a recognition model. Its success is evident: there are now almost 20,000 fellows and associates. Our most recently appointed senior fellows include for the first time two international colleagues.

A word about governance. We want to broaden and strengthen academic input to our board of directors, and this was the thinking behind the establishment of an academic council as a full committee of the board. The academic council includes a wide range of groups that have a direct influence on the student experience, including student bodies, pro vice-chancellors for teaching and learning, and National Teaching Fellows, as well as members elected from among academy fellows. Its job is to advise the board on academic matters including the research-teaching nexus, professional development and recognition and the enhancement of teaching and learning.

We are keen to strengthen student input. We have student representation on our board and academic council, but we are actively working with the National Union of Students and other bodies to ensure greater input. This is consistent with moves across the sector to involve students more closely in all aspects of quality enhancement and assurance.

We aim to enable institutions to learn from good practice elsewhere. Our postgraduate experience surveys have enabled institutions to gain a better understanding of the student experience in their own and other institutions. The same applies to the National Student Survey. The academy's role in relation to the NSS is straightforward. It is to work with academics, universities and colleges to focus its use on the improvement of the student experience. Of course the survey is only one tool for doing this; its great advantage is that it provides comparative data across most of the UK. I firmly believe that we owe it to students to make good use of their feedback, which is freely given with the altruistic aim of making possible a better experience for subsequent generations.

When the academy started four years ago, the challenges ahead were enormous. Our staff have risen to them. Our reputation both nationally and internationally is growing. But we know that this is no time for complacency. The HEA, in common with any institution and every academic, does its job because students and the quality of their experiences matter. Improving those experiences is a prize worth striving for.

Paul Ramsden is chief executive of the Higher Education Academy.

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