A £50,000 teaching fellowship sounds great, writes Pat Leon, unless it wrecks your RAE status and alienates colleagues
Twenty "star" lecturers will join the growing fellowship of national teaching-award winners next month amid doubts on the direction of the scheme, now in its third year. So far 40 academics have received £50,000 each over three years for research projects designed to improve and inspire teaching and learning in universities and colleges.
But behind the fanfare of a glittering awards ceremony and local and national media coverage, tensions are beginning to emerge about how much a reward for individual excellence in teaching can rub off at departmental and faculty level when so much emphasis is placed on success in the research assessment exercise.
Sir Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chair of judges, is confident that the awards have had a ripple effect at institutions. Many more universities and colleges now offer teaching fellowships and awards with selection processes that dovetail with the national competition. This year, 82 institutions made nominations.
"When the RAE was first introduced I felt there should be a way of recognising high-quality teaching. This award has encouraged institutions to take teaching seriously," Sir Martin said.
In 1999, the Higher Education Funding Council for England launched a three-pronged strategy to improve and professionalise university teaching. At national level, the Learning and Teaching Support Network was to link disciplines in 24 subject centres, served by a generic and technology centre. At institutional level, universities were required to have a learning and teaching strategy, revised versions of which should be submitted to Hefce by July 26. At individual level, the awards scheme was set up, and academics were to be encouraged to join the Institute for Learning and Teaching.
The National Teaching Fellowship Scheme straddles all three levels. The difficulty arises in terms of how fellows' expertise can best be exploited. Do they identify with their discipline community - and is that in research or teaching? Do they identify with the education development community? Should they do both?
The £1 million-a-year NTFS received the green light in April from Hefce and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland to operate for another two years. But no decision has been made on whether the ILT will continue to manage it, who will be the next chair of the 24-strong judging panel and how best to evaluate the scheme's success.
Sir Martin believes that more systematic use could be made of fellowship holders' talents and research. This view might jar with the fellows themselves, who say they have never been busier. Many fellows have found that a higher public profile brings its own demands, such as serving on university committees and advisory bodies, acting as subject-centre consultants, and invitations to speak at numerous events. At least five winners have subsequently been awarded chairs.
According to Alison Holmes, who monitors the fellows on behalf of the National Coordination Team of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund, of which the scheme forms a part, time is at a premium. "Some fellows said they had received so many invitations to discuss their ideas that they had not yet had time to do the project," she said.
John Klapper, head of modern languages at Birmingham University and a 2000 winner, said: "It was a bit sticky to get my project (on online training modules for language teachers) off the ground." He found he was juggling his research interests and had to hire consultants to help with his teaching-research commitment.
"Researching the teaching of a specific discipline is not recognised by the RAE so, if you are having to play that game, it is hard. The research does not have the same status as discipline research. It deserves parity of esteem. This (the fellowship) is a step in the right direction but I don't know the answer," Mr Klapper said.
Microbiologist Lesley-Jane Reynolds, a 2001 winner from Surrey University, said that it had been tough integrating everything. She used part of the money for a project to move away from large lectures to more tutorials linked to the web and CD-Roms, to buying out laboratory time. "The university was thrilled I'd won and it was great publicity. But in a science department it is not easy. Even if the higher echelons are pro teaching and learning, there is no way you can force it through at departmental and school level."
Dr Reynolds contributed to the last RAE and will participate in the next one but her teaching and learning interests are becoming a "spare time" pursuit. "As long as you are seen to be contributing to the department or school it is fine, but there is a cultural barrier, especially in science and probably in older universities, when it comes to research. An academic should use research to enthuse teaching with excitement."
Peter Hartley, a 2000 award winner from Sheffield Hallam University, was lucky enough not to have a problem with the RAE because his work was entered under education research. But he detects a further irony in that many fellowship holders are sucked into tasks that take them away from teaching. "I'm about to become head of humanities and I will do less teaching than I've done in the whole of my career."
Alan Skelton and Richard Higgins of Sheffield University's School of Education have conducted an analysis of the fellowship scheme with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. Their report, entitled Understanding Teaching Excellence: a Critical Evaluation of the Teaching Fellowship Scheme , comes out next month and will be presented at the British Educational Research Association conference in September.
The two interviewed the first fellowship winners, advisory-panel members and representatives of non-participating universities. They also held student focus groups on teaching and analysed documents, literature and press coverage about the scheme to compare with other schemes at home and abroad.
Although limited in scope and timescale, their findings raise questions about the definition of teaching excellence inherent in the scheme. Dr Skelton said that the high-profile nature of the awards sends a message that teaching is an individual activity and that excellent teaching is rare.
"I recognise that Hefce wanted to make a symbolic gesture and redress the balance with research but a more reflection on what is understood by excellence might have helped. Hefce could, for example, have chosen to use the £1 million to give smaller awards to institutional nominees," he said.
Former higher education minister Baroness Blackstone queried the scope of the awards in 2000 when she lamented the lack of ethnic representation in the first batch of fellows. This year, Gloria Gordon, a senior lecturer in human resources at South Bank University, became the first winner of Afro-Caribbean origin.
The judging panel has also considered whether awards could be set up for under-35s or for team effort. Sir Martin said that if he were remaining as chairman of judges: "I would want a category of award for relatively new entrants to the profession."
The deflation that losers experience is another concern. The ILT is looking at other ways to soften the blow of rejection, such as a one-day conference for all those nominated. As Professor Hartley put it: "Institutional nominees get a lot of press and can come out with nothing. Maybe Hefce could say entry to the scheme is provisional on the institution providing £5,000 to nominees."
The creation of a growing fellowship of teaching experts is meant to be a positive force in higher education. "They were to act as agents of change," said Dr Skelton. "But it will not just happen naturally, especially if there is no shared vision about the purpose of higher education."
Dr Skelton fears that for people in research-intensive departments, winning a teaching award could be a poisoned chalice in the present climate. "You might get £50,000 but you might not get promotion," he says.
The promotion system is the biggest cultural barrier to getting parity between research and teaching, Dr Skelton said. "If the NTFS is going to be regarded as an objective measure of excellence then Hefce has got to put pressure on institutions to change their promotions policy."
2002 NTFS WINNERS
Diane Bailey , programme director, community mental health, Birmingham University, will develop learning resources for interdisciplinary work-based supervision.
Alan Booth , reader in history, Nottingham University, is investigating university history teaching theory and practice.
Brian Chalkley .
Alan Clements , computing professor, Teesside University, will create web tools to teach computing architecture.
Angela Clow , psychology lecturer, Westminster University, will look at experimental practical work in teaching biological psychology.
Anne Davidson , health informatics lecturer, Coventry University, will develop a health-e-learning website.
Gloria Gordon , human resources lecturer, South Bank University, is introducing academically-based community service into students' final portfolios.
Peter Hughes , environmental studies lecturer, Sunderland University, will look at whether traditional academic disciplines constrain autonomous learning.
Nicholas Jackson , lecturer at Kent University law school, will develop a national web-based teaching resource on land access rights.
Pauline Kneale .
Pamela Knight .
David Nicholls , head of history, Manchester Metropolitan University, will explore relations between history education, skills and employment.
Martha Pennington , Powdrill professor of English language acquisition, Luton University, will develop a thesis and dissertation website for postgraduates and supervisors to aid writing skills.
Margaret Price , management lecturer, Oxford Brookes University, will research institution-wide assessment strategies.
Bob Rotheram , social sciences lecturer (learning and teaching), Nottingham Trent University, will create a computer-based social policy question resource.
Kay Sambell , lecturer in childhood studies, Northumbria University, is looking at helping learners who need more academic support, especially in tackling assignments.
Michael Tinker , physics lecturer, Reading University, will develop a digital resource for teaching introductory physics and maths.
Gweno Williams , English literature lecturer, York St John College, will produce a team digital video on peer-learning, creative and critical thinking and project management strategies in the arts.
Michael Winstanley , history lecturer, Lancaster University, will build links from educational to community archives, particularly within the Northwest region.
Jocelyn Wyburd , executive director, Manchester University Language Centre, will look at online learning aids to support student portfolios.
THREE OF THE BEST: CASE STUDIES
Facts behind fiction on life's learning curve
A married couple pulled off a double-whammy in the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme by winning an award in two consecutive years. Ben Knight, a professor of English and cultural studies at Teesside University, won £50,000 for a research project in 2001 while his wife Pamela, an English lecturer at Durham University, picked up the prize this year.
Pamela Knight had some idea of the commitment involved. "I knew it would be a lot of work and I did wonder if I could afford the time, but when Durham nominated me I felt honoured."
Many award-winners are overwhelmed by the flurry of media interest, local and national. Universities are eager to publicise the award-winners because it reflects well on their teaching and can help recruitment.
Sally Brown, membership director at the Institute for Learning and Teaching, which manages the awards, said that most research projects are a "slow burn". There is no formal reporting requirement but award winners are expected to publicise their research over the three years and present their results at the end.
Ms Knight is seeking to bridge the intellectual divide between the study of a discipline at school and at university.
She is looking at how people read fiction at different stages of their life and the continuity of their learning. "I have been teaching children's and American fiction for ten years or more and it has fascinated me how students like to go back and re-read books," she said.
She wants her second and third-year seminar students to work with local primary and secondary school pupils to find out how they approach books and compare the experience. She hopes that one of the spin-offs will be that school pupils, especially boys, see that reading is taken seriously.
Fellowship-holders are kept on a fairly loose leash as far as their research projects are concerned, with support meetings taking place every three months with representatives of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund.
But the spin-offs from the research award are manifold. Professor Knight has become more involved in the English subject centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network and also taken an advisory role at Teesside.
He is touched by the support from colleagues but said: "It is much easier in a post-1992 institution because they are not quite so ambivalent about the research assessment exercise. A university that has got its eye on a 5* department is not going to be so welcoming to those who want to research teaching."
Professor Brown said: "In the long term we have got a brilliant national resource. It may take time out of teaching but in the long term it will feed back in."
Plotting routes for geography graduates
Among three geographers in this year's fellowship winners were Brian Chalkley from Plymouth University and Pauline Kneale from Leeds University. Their work will have a strong supporter in the shape of the Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences Subject (GEES) Centre, part of the Learning and Teaching Support Network.
Professor Chalkley and Dr Kneale are old colleagues and both are looking at graduate geographers' employ-ability, a priority area for GEES, of which Professor Chalkley is director. He is open about the usefulness of the award to GEES because "the LTSN has not got the necessary funding capacity".
The projects illustrate the very practical nature of much of the work award-winners undertake for what is big money in research terms. The findings are intended to reach a wider audience than perhaps some disciplinary research that may be published in a peer-reviewed specialist journal.
Professor Chalkley intends to survey geography departments with good track records on graduate employment and write up case studies. "There is very little existing literature on the career expectations and record of geographers," he said.
He will also publish a staff development guide on good practice and run departmental workshops across the country as well as organise national and international conferences.
Dr Kneale's project is also based on case studies but she will be working with employers to investigate the problems graduates face in the workplace. She wants to study "intrapreneurship", that is the skills new employees need to "sell" themselves in organisations: skills such as networking, handling difficult colleagues, getting ideas across, coping with stress and managing unfair criticism. "GEES will be important for sharing outcomes via conferences, the journal Planet and workshops, and case studies will be available on the worldwide web," Dr Kneale said.