From 'discipline units' to 'virtual hubs', HEA ponders a slimmed-down future

April 8, 2010

Scaling back the Higher Education Academy's headquarters, replacing subject centres with "colleges" and setting up "virtual hubs" for different academic disciplines are among the options being considered in advance of major funding cuts.

Documents seen by Times Higher Education set out four possible scenarios for the future of the HEA, which faces losing a third of its core funding by 2012-13.

The options are being discussed by staff at a series of internal workshops ahead of the next meeting of the HEA's board on 15 April.

Earlier this year, news of the cuts prompted fears about the future of the HEA's 24 subject centres, which support teaching and learning in different disciplines.

Only one of the four scenarios envisages a future HEA without a number of physical bases for discipline centres across the country. However, none would see subject centres continue in their existing form, or with the same name.

Under the first proposal, subject centres would become "discipline units", which would have a similar geographical spread to the current provision. The HEA's headquarters in York would be scaled back, and discipline units would manage some of the HEA's national programmes instead.

The second option proposes replacing subject centres with four "colleges" or "faculties", covering: science, technology, engineering and mathematics; social sciences; arts and humanities; and health and life sciences.

They would be based in different locations across the UK, such as York, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and would double up as the HEA's offices for England, Wales and Scotland, although all colleges would have a UK focus.

The third scenario would see subject centres abolished and York become the sole HEA office. Staff focused on academic disciplines would be based there but would work "in the field" much of the time.

The final option would see a system of "discipline hubs" at universities around the country, led by "discipline champions".

There would be increased emphasis on "virtual hubs", and York would continue to be the HEA's main office, with offices elsewhere scaled back.

All options, except the first, would deliver cost savings that would allow for greater innovation, according to the documents. They stress that none of the options represents a fully developed blueprint.

"Following the workshops, the models may be amended, and supported with analysis, in preparation for the board meeting in April," the consultation documents state.

"The board will decide whether to request further development of one or more of the options, and whether there are particular elements of any that should be taken further."

A spokeswoman for the HEA said four workshops were being held for staff from across the organisation, including the subject centres.

"This is part of an iterative and open process that will inform decisions to be taken later in the year. We do not see any of the scenarios as providing a blueprint for the organisation ... There are no plans to ask the board to choose one scenario," she added.

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