Opposition grows to subject centre cuts as Germany cribs key lessons

MPs and sector unite to pressurise HEA as model is replicated overseas. Rebecca Attwood reports

February 10, 2011

The Higher Education Academy is coming under mounting pressure to reconsider its decision to scrap its network of discipline-specific teaching support centres.

A petition against the plan has gathered more than 1,000 signatures, while 15 MPs have signed an early day motion demanding that funding for the 24 subject centres be maintained.

The motion says that the centres play an important role in "championing the teaching and learning of diverse disciplines" and "nurturing innovation in teaching".

"This House...deplores the proposal emanating from the (HEA) to disband the centres," it states.

The subject centres are all based in universities and directly employ their staff.

But the HEA, which faces losing one-third of its core funding by 2012-13, plans to replace them with roaming subject heads whom it employs itself.

Margaret Freeman, director of learning and teaching in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health at the University of Sheffield, said that most of her colleagues were "very concerned" about the loss of the centres.

"They've been a really useful way of networking, sharing resources and encouraging thinking and action about the student learning experience," she said.

"At a time when we are all working to demonstrate the value and quality of our teaching, it seems rather perverse to cut off an active and valued resource."

Patricia Cartney, learning and teaching strategy leader in the School of Health and Social Sciences at Middlesex University, said that in the aftermath of the Browne Review, learning and teaching was likely to need renewed attention.

"The subject centres...would be well placed to assist in this process. If they are disbanded, it will be at precisely the wrong moment," she said.

A spokeswoman for the HEA said academics would still be able to "draw on a great range of services and support at subject level" following the reorganisation, which will result in the loss of about 130 full-time posts.

In future, the HEA would be able to "spend a greater proportion of its resources on frontline services, including the continuation of e-journals and resources, subject-specialist workshops and programmes for initial teacher training, and an extended small grant programme to support teaching innovations and development", she said.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Germany is replicating the UK model, just as the UK subject centres face closure.

In 2008, the German Council of Science and Humanities, which advises the nation's government on the development of higher education and research, highlighted the UK's subject centres in a report calling for greater investment in university teaching.

It recommended that similar centres be established in Germany.

Two charitable bodies, Stiftung Mercator and the Volkswagen Foundation, have now funded subject centres in mathematics, engineering and medicine, which opened in the autumn.

Each centre will receive €1 million-€1.5 million (£840,000 to £1.26 million).

Sonka Stein, project manager at Stiftung Mercator, said the UK subject centres were seen as "the role model" for the German centres, adding that there had been some 90 applications for the funding.

Last November, the German government announced a €2 billion 10-year investment in university teaching, some of which could be used to fund more subject centres.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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