HEA cuts threaten future of subject centres

Fears grow for teaching development as budget reductions are confirmed, Rebecca Attwood writes

February 25, 2010

The fruit of decades of effort to improve university teaching is under threat at the very time it is needed most as a result of cuts to the higher education budget, it was claimed this week.

Funding chiefs have confirmed that the £30 million-a-year Higher Education Academy, the national body for university teaching, is facing a reduction in core funding of about a third over the next two to three years.

Some academics fear that the body's network of 24 subject centres, set up to support teaching and learning in different disciplines, will be targeted. They currently receive 63 per cent of the core funding.

In addition, funding of £315 million over five years from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for the UK's 74 Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) - Hefce's largest investment in this area - comes to an end next month, leaving the future funding of some CETLs uncertain.

Meanwhile, Graham Gibbs, former head of the Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, has warned that teaching-development centres in universities across the UK are facing "rightsizing" and that financial problems will force "economies of scale" in teaching (see box below).

Professor Gibbs said the "whole teaching-development enterprise" was under threat.

The UK's four higher education funding bodies have informed the HEA that it should plan for a reduction in its core funding of about 30 per cent by 2012-13.

The HEA's board held an away-day earlier this month to consider its future focus, attended by a number of subject centre directors.

Sean Mackney, acting chief executive of the HEA, has written to vice-chancellors to inform them that subject centres will receive a reduced grant from the next academic year.

The letter commits the HEA to funding subject centre staff contracts until the end of December, but there is concern about the future of the centres beyond that date.

In 2008, an independent interim evaluation of the HEA said the purpose of its York headquarters needed to be better explained, but added that the sector valued the subject centres.

Not the promised end

Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University, said: "If the HEA board can't be dissuaded, I think this will mark the end of the HEA in the next few years. Without the subject centres, I don't believe that anyone will see what is left at York as value for money."

A spokeswoman for the HEA said it was examining all its work, and stressed that no decisions had been made about the organisation's future structure.

In a statement, Mr Mackney says the body will be honing in on specific aspects of student learning where it will "make an impact".

"We are looking at the best way of incorporating work with staff in the disciplines into our overall approach," he adds.

Imogen Taylor, professor of social care and social work at the University of Sussex and a national teaching fellow, said that support for learning and teaching development was crucial.

But she added that it was "entirely reasonable" to review funding for subject centres and CETLs at a time when departments were having to fight for investment.

"We cannot just assume that current structures will serve us best in this new environment," she said.

Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University, said that the HEA had done "an excellent job" improving teaching and learning, and that cuts to its budget were "the wrong decision at the wrong time".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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