Jury out on bid to fix university teaching

September 3, 1999

Only time will tell if HEFCE's

new fund to redress the balance between teaching and research will succeed, says Alison Utley.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is now taking the neglect of university teaching very seriously indeed.

That was the message funding chiefs hoped to convey as they launched their Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) last month, committing almost Pounds 90 million over the next three years to raise the status of teaching. But does its new strategy go far enough?

It is now acknowledged that the standing of teaching has been damaged by the prestige and cash attached to research excellence. The council's plans are intended to tackle the imbalance. It is seeking to persuade academics and universities, many of whom regard research as the only priority, that teaching and learning can be just as rewarding and the basis for a high-flying academic career.

So far they have received a cautious welcome from the university teaching community. Lewis Elton, of University College London's higher education unit, described the TQEF as an exciting initiative which must not fail.

"This is in itself an innovation and as such is likely to be prone to all the vicissitudes of other innovations in teaching and learning, the most serious of which is that the academic community is very unforgiving towards perceived failure of teaching innovations. It is very important to get it right first time - a second chance may not be available."

So how will the fund work? The idea is to deliver the money on three levels: to institutions, to individual lecturers and to academic subject networks.

The Institutional Strand. All institutions will be entitled to a share of Pounds 14.5 million in 1999-2000, rising to Pounds 28 million in 2001-02, if they can demonstrate that a satisfactory learning and teaching strategy is in place.

The Individual Strand.Designed to recognise and reward outstanding individuals through two routes. The new Institute for Learning and Teaching will be in charge of a Pounds 1 million annual fellowship scheme to be launched nationally next year. This will provide one-off payments of around Pounds 50,000 for

high-flyers to develop teaching innovations. In addition, employers will be expected to give greater attention to rewarding academics for quality teaching.

The Subject Strand. Twenty-four specialist subject centres to encourage better teaching practices will be established at venues to be announced next month after a competitive bidding round. In addition a new Generic Learning and Teaching Centre is to be created to support teaching issues common to a number of disciplines.

Finally, the council merged two previously separate programmes, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme and the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning, under a single team based at the Open University.

HEFCE has commissioned a survey of the state of play of learning and teaching strategies in more than 100 universities, which reveals that about half have already devised a strategy and the rest are in the process of doing so. This is the testing time. Overall about 90 per cent of learning and teaching strategies are either in draft or in their first cycle of implementation.

Survey author Graham Gibbs, of the Open University's centre for higher education practice, said the most effective strategies outlined goals and methods of achieving them. There also needed to be an awareness of how to recognise when targets had been reached. The less effective strategies failed to contain targets or plans for implementation. Only about 3 per cent of the respondents had no plans to devise a strategy at all.

Alan Jenkins, an educational developer at Oxford Brookes University, said the real difficulty for universities was knowing how to create learning strategies which really worked.

"This is a whole new ball game and universities will need a great deal of support if they are to get it right," he said.

While welcoming HEFCE's initiative, Professor Jenkins said the jury was still out over whether enough money was on offer to shift entrenched behaviours. "How did we get into this mess in the first place? The downgrading of university teaching is the result of the preferential funding of research which is still separated from teaching. And clearly the sums involved here do not match up to the RAE."

Professor Elton also regretted the "one serious omission" by HEFCE.

He said: "There is no mention of a possible positive teaching-

research nexus. This is of particular interest to highly research-

oriented universities which may find most of the depositions of TQEF angled more towards the new universities."

Mantz Yorke, of the Centre for Higher Education Development at Liverpool John Moores University and a member of HEFCE's teaching quality enhancement committee, agreed that more radical changes might be needed to align research and teaching more closely.

He said: "The fact that HEFCE is having to make universities devise learning and teaching strategies is a sad reflection on institutions. They should have been doing it off their own backs a long time ago."

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