Higher Education Academy ‘failing to win over leaders’

Body has impressed rank and file but must convince institution heads of the impact and value of its work, says report

June 26, 2014

University leaders are far less convinced about the value of the Higher Education Academy than rank-and-file academics, according to an independent review credited with the decision to strip its funding.

In a report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the lack of support from institution heads is identified as a serious problem for the organisation, which was told in April that it will lose all its funding council money by 2017.

The loss of this cash, worth about 83 per cent of its £20 million budget last year, has raised serious doubts over the future of the teaching excellence champion, which will make about half its 180-strong workforce redundant this summer.

Written by Capita Consulting, the Independent Review of the Higher Education Academy says that the organisation “has to better communicate, to institutional leaders, the impact and value of its work with their institutions”.

Although only about 15 per cent of the 224 individuals from 82 organisations surveyed said that they were “unsure about the impact of the HEA’s work”, they were more likely to include senior university figures than academics who had worked with the HEA, the report says.

“What may be valued by individual academics and disciplines does not necessarily reflect the preoccupations of institutional leaders,” says the report, published this month, four months after it was initially due out.

“It is clear that the HEA needs to give more attention to how it adds value to institutions’ senior teams,” it adds.

On a related note, the HEA “has yet to establish a clear approach to demonstrating value for money and the impact of its work”, despite having a “wealth of data” about successful projects, the report says. There is, however, much praise for the “increasingly efficient and effective organisation”, which has “devised and, for the most part, successfully implemented a new and more resilient business model” after a 30 per cent cut to its budget.

But the closure of subject centres to cope with the cuts is criticised in the report by several people in the sector, who argue that the new discipline experts introduced in 2011 are “spread fairly thinly” across the sector, have reduced the organisation’s profile and made it seem “remote”.

“Staff feel that the one part of the HEA with which they engaged has been removed,” said one person cited in the report. “There is…the perception that perhaps the support for disciplines is not as strong as it used to be through the subject centres,” said another.

There were also “mixed” views on the value of HEA-funded research, which “does not always provide a clear focus for understanding potential solutions for key issues”, some of those surveyed say.

The report calls on the HEA to “focus on to fewer key strategic priorities” by “concentrating on a smaller number of themes, or rotating themes on an annual basis” after some criticised its desire to be “experts in everything”.

Stephanie Marshall, chief executive of the HEA, said that she was pleased with some of the “very positive and encouraging feedback from the sector” outlined in the report.

“The findings reinforce our plans to develop the four clear, targeted and evidence-based workstreams to enhance learning and teaching,” said Professor Marshall.

She added that she was determined to “have the measures in place to demonstrate the…difference that we will help bring about to the student experience in learning and teaching”.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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