New HEA chair: paying members could enshrine it as professional body

Rama Thirunamachandran says role and financing of sector’s teaching champion must be rethought

August 27, 2015
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Who will buy? The new chair of the Higher Education Academy said that a case could be made for individual fees as long as academics ‘get very specific services’

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) should become the professional body for university teaching in a shift that could lead to the introduction of individual subscription fees, its new chair has said.

Rama Thirunamachandran, the vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, told Times Higher Education that the role and financing of the HEA, which champions university teaching, needed to be rethought in the wake of the UK funding councils’ decision to reduce their support for the organisation to zero by 2016-17.

Professor Thirunamachandran said that although some academics were “reluctant” to view themselves as being part of a profession and preferred to lend their allegiance to their disciplines, it was “really important” for the sector to demonstrate “a broader commitment to higher education in its widest sense”.

This was particularly the case after the announcement of plans in England for the teaching excellence framework, and for universities to be allowed to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation if they can demonstrate high standards.

“My ambition would be for the HEA to be recognised as the professional body for the higher education sector and we are well on the way to that,” Professor Thirunamachandran said. “The more that higher education becomes a profession, the more it will need a strong professional body to support it.”

The move could have important implications for the financing of the York-based HEA, which has had its central funding reduced from £13.5 million in 2014-15 to £5.3 million for the coming year, and has cut more than 60 jobs in the past 12 months.

The HEA received £2.4 million in institutional subscription fees in 2013-14 and Professor Thirunamachandran said that this would remain a “strong part” of the organisation’s funding base, but he added that charging individual subscription fees was “part of being a professional body”.

‘The key thing is dialogue’

Professor Thirunamachandran said that he did not have a “predetermined view” about whether the HEA should charge individual subscriptions but said that he believed a case “could be made” for them, “as long as the individuals get very specific services which are personal”, probably linked to continuing professional development.

“The key thing we need to have is dialogue,” Professor Thirunamachandran added. “We need to have a dialogue with institutions to understand how best we can support them, and how best they are able to fund us to support them.”

The shift to an individual membership structure would move the HEA closer to the model of its predecessor organisation, the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, which had about 17,500 paying members prior to the 2004 merger that created the HEA.

The HEA currently has about 65,000 fellows and, if the holding of fellowships was linked in some way to payment of individual subscriptions, the HEA could be in a strong position, since uptake of fellowships has been suggested as an important measure of institutional performance in a TEF. Teaching qualifications and continuing professional development, which are key areas of activity for the HEA, could also be considered by a TEF.

But Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University, said that academics’ professionalism was “located in the relations between their disciplinary scholarship and their teaching, not simply in their teaching”, and that as such the HEA “lacks the credibility” to lead teaching development across the sector.

Most of the benefits of academics being HEA-recognised lay at the institutional, rather than the individual level, he added.

“It is difficult to see how the HEA could develop an offer that would be attractive enough to lead a significant proportion of academics to pay for individual subscriptions,” Professor Ashwin said.

Roger King, founding chair of the ILT and former vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, said that the TEF may “gradually reinforce” the notion of university teaching as a profession.

But he argued that the best hope for the HEA was to develop a consultancy role helping institutions to do well in the TEF and quality assurance.

“If the HEA can persuade the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that possessing an HEA-accredited teaching qualification gets institutions lots of brownie points in the TEF, then this would give it a market power that it could monetise,” he said.

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