Sally Brown's enthusiasm is contagious. She is membership director for the Institute for Learning and Teaching and, despite the bad press since the ILT's conception in 1998, she is undaunted by the task of turning around the professional profile of teaching in higher education.
Her zeal was evident at York University last week during the ILT's second annual conference. Cynics might say she and her tiny team were preaching to the converted, but a third of the 353 academics present were not ILT members and many were discipline-based rather than being staff developers. "For many years, the focus has been on the content of teaching and not on how teaching happens. But there is tremendous interest in how teaching happens. It's a very powerful movement," she says.
The ILT is one of a number of initiatives altering the landscape in higher education. It works closely with the 24 subject centres of the Learning and Teaching Support Network, which was launched last autumn.
The two organisations aim to get university lecturers out of their silos of expertise and create a "caring and sharing" community by providing forums and websites for regular contacts and exchange of ideas and research.
"The ILT is for people who want to make a difference to student learning," Brown says. This was evident from the positive buzz at York. Making a difference too are the 40 national teaching fellows, of whom the second batch were to receive their £50,000 prize money from higher education minister Margaret Hodge last Tuesday. The ILT has also launched a "small grants to make a difference" scheme for members, who can apply for £1,000 for teaching and learning projects.
It is an uphill task to persuade 100,000 or so research-focused academics to pay to join yet another professional body, especially when the main lecturers' union, the Association of University Teachers, has rattled its sabre. Last December, the union called for a boycott of the ILT. It then said it was considering forming an alternative professional lecturers' body.
This belligerence contrasts with lecturers' union Natfhe, which has backed the ILT. General secretary Paul Mackney's view is that "the profession needs an independent self-governing voice standing up for the skills and values of learning and teaching".
Brown is unfazed by the fuss. "I go to universities about three times a week. I am not talking to the converted, but I do not get the strength of feeling against us the media portrays. People ask: 'What is this AUT stuff? Where is it coming from?' There is a lot of misunderstanding about what we are about and what we want to do."
She must be relieved, though, that AUT ardour for its own set-up is cooling. The union is consulting members' opinion on ILT membership for discussion at its winter council. Caroline Bucklow, ILT accreditation officer, says: "It has been difficult to convince people that the ILT is a membership organisation rather than a government agency. People have underestimated the groundwork that has to be done. Natfhe's approach has been positive in allowing us to develop."
The ILT must also crack the difficult problem of academics' identity crisis. They research, administer, tutor, advise, consult, write, report - and now the pressure is on to prove they really are helping students to learn.
This dilemma is epitomised by a conversation ILT accreditor Alison Holmes had with a delegate on the train back from York. "He told me he had been selective about which of his colleagues he told he was attending the conference because in his research department he would have been mocked."
The ILT is nevertheless on a roll. Last week, chief executive Paul Clark said it had 5,400 members. "Everybody takes the ILT on its growth rate. Last year, our first, we hit 1,500 and were getting 60 applications a week. Now we are receiving 130 a week. This compares favourably with many mature organisations."
The optimism was evident at the conference dinner and ceilidh at York race course. There, the new ILT chairman Sir Kenneth Calman, vice-chancellor of Durham University, presented the 5,000th member, Andrew Dawson, lecturer in American history at the University of Greenwich, with an umbrella. Good protection, perhaps, against any critical downpour.
The ILT has two membership categories, full and associate, with different entry routes: individual, by completing an accredited training programme; or by membership of other professional bodies whose members teach in higher education.
The initial entry route for academics who have taught for at least three years - or pro rata for part-timers - will close in September.
Trained accreditors are expected to give the ILT ten days' work a year. In pairs, they examine individual applications or visit institutions to review programme applications. There is a member of the ILT team in tow to offer advice.
Alison Holmes is one of 50 ILT accreditors, all practising academics. She is a coordinater of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund based at the Open University's Centre for Higher Education Practice. "Programmes are accredited for five years. We don't just say yes or no - we ask 'have you thought of this?'" Joan Carey is a course leader of the education development unit at Queen's University, Belfast. "We had a day's visit in which the team talked to the pro vice-chancellor with responsibility for teaching, the course team and the participants.
"It was similar to the Quality Assurance Agency visit but had a very different feeling. We felt as though they were genuinely helping develop the course."
ILT accreditation officer Caroline Bucklow says: "Feedback from the institutions has been good. By being with the ILT, they can discuss issues with others. It is the only time in my life that I feel I have scored straight As."
Teaching gets a quality push
Since 1999-2000, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has taken a three-pronged approach to raising teaching quality - the institution, the subject discipline and the individual academic.
The Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund was allocated £24 million for 1999-2000, £29 million for 2000-01 and £30 million for 2001-02. It supports:
- Institutions' learning strategies
- Discipline projects through the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning and the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme
- Individuals by encouraging institutions to reward teaching excellence.
Hefce has also allocated money for the National Teaching Fellowships and set up the Learning and Teaching Support Network's subject centres with Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish help.