Flagship for teaching has limited effect on practice

Study finds pockets of success for £300m scheme to raise standards. Rebecca Attwood reports

July 10, 2008

A £300 million drive to improve university teaching and reward good teachers is having only limited success in changing practices and perceptions across the sector, according to an official report.

By the end of the decade, some £315 million will have been invested in 74 centres for excellence in teaching and learning (Cetls) in universities around the country. Cetls aim to reward excellent teaching and "deepen" its effects across a higher education sector that is often said to neglect teaching in the pursuit of research ratings.

Now a formal evaluation three years into the programme, by the Centre for the Study of Education and Training at Lancaster University, has concluded that the centres have been "a visible and iconic symbol" of a shift in attention towards teaching and are helping to improve its status.

But the report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England says that although the centres have had an impact in "pockets", many have had "little or no effect on institutional practice outside the immediate Cetl beneficiaries".

Only a minority of centres have had "profound" effects on institutions' policies and practices and have begun to influence the wider community.

Forty-two per cent of centre directors said they had only some or no support from senior managers at their institution; and 39 per cent said they discussed progress only through steering groups or stated that senior managers had little knowledge of the activities of their Cetls.

Only a "relatively small" proportion of senior managers could say that their Cetls were influencing the direction of an institution's teaching strategy.

The report concludes: "(Positive) effects tend to be circulating around the direct beneficiaries of Cetl resources, but there is growing evidence that effects are beginning to move out from the enclaves of practice within Cetls and, in some cases, are being used to strategic effect within institutions."

Centre directors told Times Higher Education that the diverse focuses of Cetls, some of which are highly discipline-specific, made it difficult to judge their overall impact.

"In some universities, a Cetl might have been considered as a small project within a discipline. I report directly to the vice-chancellor - if you start from that premise, you are going to have a bigger impact," said Peter Bullen, director of the Blended Learning Unit at the University of Hertfordshire.

"I know that we've had a considerable impact on our university, and on the sector, and there are lots of indicators to show that."

Margaret Price, director of the ASKe Cetl at Oxford Brookes University, said: "Because Cetls sit slightly outside university systems, they have freedom to explore new directions. Cetls are making a tangible difference to students' learning experiences in many ways."

But she added that the proportion of centre directors who did not feel supported by senior managers was "shockingly high".

Several academics, who did not want to be named, said they understood that some centres were less keen to share their work than others because their host institutions were aiming to use their Cetls to gain competitive advantage.

A spokesman for Hefce said the report was an interim evaluation and demonstrated "reasonable" success so far.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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