HEA looks to raise bar and boost profile

Academy's chair tells Rebecca Attwood of five-year plan to help deliver 'highest quality learning'

March 27, 2008

The Higher Education Academy is "up for a challenge", according to the chair of its board of directors. Five years after it was established, and shortly after the first evaluation of its work, it has set out its goals for the next five years - and they do not lack ambition, according to Robert Burgess.

The grand vision is for UK higher education to provide students with "the highest quality learning experience in the world".

"It is pretty challenging, but actually it is an appropriate challenge given where we've got to," Professor Burgess, who was appointed chair of the HEA last year, told Times Higher Education.

"When we talk about research, we talk about world-class research, and the fact that Britain wants to be a leader. Why can't we say the same about teaching and learning?"

The first evaluation of the HEA's work, published in February, found that the HEA had many strengths but was not yet widely perceived as adding "significant value" to the sector, and had yet to realise its full potential.

But Professor Burgess argues that the building blocks are now in place and it can decide what the sector wants and what it is uniquely placed to do.

The academy's strategic aims are bolder than those in its first plan. They include aiming to raise the status of teaching, influencing policy and helping to bring about strategic change that enhances learning. Its success in these areas will be measured through attitudinal surveys.

And it has set itself hard targets - 10 per cent annual growth in use of the academy's research services and in the number of staff that engage with its network of subject centres, and an increase in the number of fellows of the academy from 18,000 to 40,000 over the period, with applications for senior fellowships up by 25 per cent a year.

Some academics consulted felt that the HEA should focus on teaching rather than the student learning experience, but Professor Burgess is determined that the latter will remain at the core of its mission.

"Students are at the very heart of higher education," he said.

"I think we've not always as a sector systematically thought about that. For example, many people would say to vice-chancellors, 'Well actually you've got higher value on research than we do on teaching.' I think one of the encouraging things that's happening in the sector is that people are talking about the synergy between research and teaching, and the importance of both."

The academy will be looking anew at the subject of assessment, which has been relatively neglected.

"It is too narrow just to talk about teaching on its own. I think you've got to think about teaching, learning and assessment because I think very often we've talked about teaching the curriculum and student learning, but assessment is the other component that needs to be examined."

- Consultation on the future aims of the HEA ends on 18 April.

See www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/2008-13draftstrategicplan



When the University of Leicester decided to award foundation degrees, its vice-chancellor, Robert Burgess, recalls, a colleague worried that Leicester might be the only research-intensive university offering the two-year vocational courses.

"My notion was, does that matter?" said Professor Burgess.

That was 2000, and Professor Burgess was new to the post. Fast-forward to 2008, the university's 50th anniversary year, and Professor Burgess has continued to show little regard for the standard markers of status as the university expanded its range of activities.

Not only does Leicester now proudly offer six foundation degrees, but it has also (along with 15 teaching-led and one other research-intensive university) just won "employer engagement" funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to develop degree courses that will be co-funded and partly designed by employers.

Professor Burgess has no qualms about taking the university into territory that may appear to conflict with its status as a member of the 1994 Group of research-led institutions.

"If you open up (employer-engagement) opportunities in a research-intensive university that are not necessarily available elsewhere, you fill a niche," Professor Burgess explained. "You tap into different audiences ... and you open up research opportunities that you might not have engaged in (otherwise)."

As an example, he cites a partnership with De Beers. The university's geology department and the Institute of Lifelong Learning have been working with the diamond company to develop a course for De Beers employees. "It might result in other kinds of relationships with De Beers in terms of the work that geologists engage in, that management specialists might engage in," he said.

After nine years at the helm, Professor Burgess has taken Leicester out of the red, improved its position in a number of league tables and overseen a £300 million building programme.

In UK league tables, the university's ranking now hovers around the 20th spot; it is in the top 10 for research activity and number one for student satisfaction. A new library complex will open soon, and there are more buildings on the list for refurbishment - including its world-famous engineering building.

"We are (now back) wanting to grow income in order to be able to realise a whole range of projects," Professor Burgess said.

In addition to increasing employer engagement, the university's masterplan aims to raise student numbers by offering more vocationally based niche masters courses and by capitalising on distance learning. "(The niche masters course) is an area Leicester has identified and has successfully colonised," said Professor Burgess, who stressed that half Leicester's 19,000 students are postgraduates. "(They) illustrate that there is no sharp divide between the academic and vocational."


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