HEA's ex-chief calls for change in a frank end-of-term report

March 11, 2010

The national body for university teaching has a future - but not in its present form, says its former head.

Inconsistency in performance across the Higher Education Academy is clear to outsiders, there is duplication of functions, and some parts "sometimes produce poor material", Paul Ramsden says in a paper presented to the HEA board.

The report, seen by Times Higher Education, says the HEA is viewed by critics as "conservative, self-serving and inward-looking".

It calls for "creative thinking" on the HEA's network of 24 subject centres, set up to support teaching in different disciplines, suggesting the number could be far smaller.

It also says that the organisation, now facing a reduction in core funding of about a third by 2012-13, should not assume that its large central office in York is a "necessity".

Professor Ramsden writes that his discussions across the sector ahead of his retirement in late 2009 made it clear that people wanted to help the HEA succeed, but that "substantial change" is needed.

"I have formed the firm opinion ... that the organisation has a sustainable future - but not in its current form," he writes.

The paper sets out his views of the HEA's future, although Professor Ramsden says he does not want to restrict the freedom of his successor.

While one of the HEA's strengths is its capacity to improve teaching via academics' primary allegiance to their subjects, there are also downsides to this model, he says.

"With the best will in the world, we cannot say that academics are exclusively concerned with the quality of the student learning experience."

Some believe that, rather than focusing on academics and professional staff, the HEA should concentrate on what universities, the government and funding bodies need to improve the student learning experience, he says.

On the issue of subject centres, Professor Ramsden asks whether 24 is the right number. "To most outsiders ... it seems large," he writes.

The structures he has most often heard suggested are an arrangement of three or four "colleges" or a model of 10-12 subject centres.

"Inconsistency in performance across the academy is apparent to outsiders. Parts of it ... sometimes produce poor material", and subject centre performance is variable. These issues are associated with "trying to do too much" and with management structures.

The HEA is an "exceedingly decentralised" organisation with a large footprint, which suggests to outsiders that it is "inefficient (and possibly rather old-fashioned)".

"We ... find it difficult to secure consistent and entire organisational focus on any priority," he adds.

Two-thirds of the academy's £30 million a year funding is devolved to subject centres "with only minimal control".

A more "rational" arrangement would be to employ all staff directly and to have reporting lines from "deans" or heads to the executive.

"This would also give power to the very senior staff in the academy who may currently feel ... they have little control."

An HEA spokeswoman said the academy had an important role and was looking at the best way to develop its work, but no decisions had been made. She said the paper presented Professor Ramsden's personal reflections at the end of his term and provided "additional background to inform discussions".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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