Post-1992s give sector an object lesson in instruction

But HEA awards also point to rising focus on good teaching at older universities. Jack Grove reports

August 9, 2012

Modern universities are outperforming their older counterparts in the sector's most celebrated teaching awards, but pre-1992 institutions are increasingly seeing the value of doing well in the scheme.

These are among the key lessons to be drawn from the Higher Education Academy's announcement of its latest National Teaching Fellowship Awards, designed to recognise and reward good teaching within universities.

Since the launch of the scheme 12 years ago, more than 530 lecturers and support staff have been handed the award, which includes a £10,000 prize to help develop aspects of their teaching.

Seven of the 10 most prolific winners over that time have been new universities, including De Montfort University (15 fellows), the University of Gloucestershire (12), the University of Huddersfield (12) and the University of Plymouth (12).

However, the most successful institution is the University of Leeds, with 16 fellows so far.

Other older universities that scored highly include the University of Lancaster (11), the University of Warwick (10) and the universities of Exeter and Leicester (nine each).

Stephanie Marshall, deputy chief executive (research and policy) of the HEA, said research-intensive universities were increasingly keen to show their commitment to teaching excellence.

Elite take strategic view of lecturing

"At universities such as Leeds, Warwick and Queen Mary, University of London, they are looking for a more strategic approach to developing teaching excellence," Professor Marshall said. "The National Teaching Fellowship is one way of showing you have innovative and generally excellent teachers."

Reflecting on the scheme's development, she added: "Initially, some people were mostly excited by the money available, but I think the accolade of a teaching fellowship is now more important."

Vivien Jones, pro vice-chancellor for student education at Leeds, said the scheme - complemented by Leeds' internal teaching fellowship programme - had helped to champion the importance of good teaching.

"Teaching excellence is one of our criteria for academic promotion at every level, and the national recognition provided by the award of an NTF would be significant evidence in any application for promotion," Professor Jones said.

While the teaching-led nature of many newer universities may explain their staff's success in gaining national recognition, educators argue that the more diverse student intake of post-92s encourages greater innovation.

Christine Jarvis, dean of education at the University of Huddersfield, said: "A lot of our students come from professional backgrounds and need different teaching from the traditional undergraduate.

"Staff have to teach students new to the subject as well as those with years working within that discipline."

Andy Downton, pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at De Montfort University, believed the institution's own teaching awards had contributed to its success in the national awards.

"We have the student-nominated Vice-Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Awards, which saw 800 nominations this year and 12 prizes awarded, and the Teacher Fellow Awards, which is modelled on the NTF criteria," he said.

"There is also specific support and mentoring schemes to help potential NTF applicants develop."

Professor Downton also welcomed a review of the fellowship scheme, which is due to report in October, as he believes the good practice of national teaching fellows could be disseminated more effectively.

"Not every student will be taught by a national teaching fellow, but I want all students to receive the quality of teaching, support and inspiration that is exemplified by our NTF winners."

Drawn from Life: HEA teaching fellows who inspire

For many of this year's 55 National Teaching Fellowship winners, their backgrounds inspire the way they teach. But few have experienced the same journey to higher education as Brendan Stone.

Now a senior lecturer in the University of Sheffield's School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, he spent most of his twenties "too disabled to work, often unemployed and sometimes homeless" before doing a university access course in his thirties. His experience inspired his project, Storying Sheffield, which won him a £10,000 Higher Education Academy award.

"The people [on the access course] were from such a wide range of backgrounds - guys who had just finished work on the building site and women who had had children and were trying to get back into work," he said. "I didn't feel like an oddball; I was just another person doing their best."

Storying Sheffield is a multimedia art and community project in which undergraduates and local people with no background in higher education work together to produce, record and collect stories about the city's population.

"It started as an undergraduate module for students of English," Dr Stone said, "but half the people doing the course are not undergraduates - they're residents of the city."

The residents, who are registered with the university on a short course, participate in lectures and classes with undergraduates.

Many of the first participants had a history of mental health problems, but the project has since expanded to involve a variety of under-represented groups.

Dr Stone's research interests include mental health issues and the link between education and well-being. He knew from his research that participating in Storying Sheffield "could be beneficial to people's well-being and their sense of empowerment". But he is keen to stress that the course was "never intended to be therapy".

"English, especially in Russell Group universities, tends to be quite middle class in terms of the intake," he said.

"Our undergraduates are great, but the project is about making arts faculties at universities more accessible and relevant to people's lives."

University outreach should not be about "dispensing wisdom to the poor, ignorant masses", he said. "The University of Sheffield belongs to the city, is connected to the city and needs the city."

David Wilson says his 14 years working as a prison governor enabled him to "see behind the labels we put on people".

The professor of criminology and director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University organises talks by ex-offenders for undergraduates and takes his third-year students to lunch with prisoners at HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire.

"Students might have read about...psychopaths, but when they...have lunch with them, they realise that a psychopath can be incredibly charming," he said.

Laura Ritchie won an award for helping music graduates teach their skills to others.

Dr Ritchie, course director of the University of Chichester's instrumental and vocal teaching programme, said that music students "used to think that they would only become performers, but things have changed and you can't just do one thing any more".

The hope is that when students complete the course, which instructs them in teaching methods and provides them with work experience, "they'll be three steps ahead of other grads".

Dr Ritchie is herself a musician. She plays classical cello as well as performing with her band The Mummers.

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