Role of new teaching academy still unclear

May 9, 2003

A yellow honeycomb logo represents a network that has rapidly established itself in UK higher education over the past three years. Through its work with staff to aid and improve their teaching it has begun to enhance students' experience of learning.

The logo belongs to the Learning and Teaching Support Network, one of three agencies that the white paper announced would band together to launch a teaching quality academy in 2004. The other two are the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and Hesda, the staff development agency.

But a honeycomb could just as easily symbolise the incipient academy. For this week, a working group of representatives from the agencies, vice-chancellors, funding council and other bodies were busy as bees drawing up a business plan and constitutional arrangements.

Queen bee will be the chair, tipped to be Leslie Wagner, who retires as vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University this summer. His first task will be to pull together a board and senior management team.

Everything seems done and dusted. Odd then are the voices raised at a conference in Manchester last week predicting that the academy might be a "Consignia debacle" waiting to happen. Odder still that ILTHE's 14,000 members will vote only this summer on whether to join.

Organised by the three agencies, the "Imagining a better future" conference gave senior academics and managers a chance to air their views. Three papers, collated by a "creative thinking group", were circulated online before it started.

They reveal academics' fears that a single academy will be prone to political influences that will undermine its credibility and alienate staff. The advantage of the status quo, they argue, is that different bodies serve different constituencies with different interests. "The risk in a single body is that it becomes monolithic in its viewpoint and standardised in the way it views enhancement," says working paper three.

One contributor warned: "The danger is that the academy looks like all things to all folk. Institutions need help. But so do others - teachers, disciplinary associations, external examiners, etc - who are often daily/steadily trying to deliver quality enhancement, or are unsure about what quality enhancement is."

The role of the as-yet-unnamed academy is still unclear, although agency chiefs are upbeat. According to Cliff Allan, LTSN director, everything is up for grabs. "The academy can be what we want it to be. There is a great deal of scope. Clearly we have different interests, but we should be able to represent them. The focus should be enhancing student experience."

The white paper, however, wrote its own road map. The academy was to "support continuous good practice, setting professional standards, accrediting training, conducting research and helping develop policy on teaching and learning". It added that the academy "would work closely with the emerging sector skills council, to be led by employers with responsibility for skills in higher education and the wider adult learning sector across the UK".

Sally Neocosmos, Hesda chief executive, points to tensions between the academy's accreditation and developmental roles and between individual and institutional interests. There is also "a serious question about how the body will work with the Quality Assurance Agency".

Ms Neocosmos questioned how the academy could remain independent from government when the academy relied on it for some of its funding. Projected income blends funding council grants, institutional subscriptions of £10,000-£25,000, contracts and accreditation with individual membership fees of about £50.

"We are a long way from having a clear idea of what the academy will be," she said. "Those who teach are the minority in higher education. There are 300,000 or more other people. Will the academy encompass those? If it is about teaching and learning, it must also have a student focus."

For the ILTHE, Caroline Bucklow, acting chief executive, said members would value the academy only if it had the ethos of a professional body. It is proposed that ILTHE members become "fellows of the academy". Dr Bucklow said staff are keen to have an input into education policy. "There is genuine concern that policies should be based on hard evidence," she said.

The academy's success "will depend on people wanting to engage. If they do, it will work."

The idea of an academy came from Sir Ron Cooke's Teaching Quality Enhancement Committee, which last year was charged with ironing out confusions, overlaps and inefficiencies between the three agencies and the Quality Assurance Agency.

Sandra Burslem, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, was on the Cooke team that sifted through evidence. The impression of the agencies was positive, but people did not know exactly what each one did.

"The working environment had become a lot more difficult for academics.

People wanted improved and targeted communications and access to information. From this emerged the idea of a strategic body," she said.

But it is difficult for the academy to be a UK-wide strategic body if Scotland and Wales are developing national higher education policies. Bob Matthew, director of teaching and learning at Glasgow University, said Scots were sceptical at first. "The initial response was, 'Oh, no, not another new body.' " If the two main functions are to introduce a licence to teach by 2006 and the professional development of teachers, they must be kept separate.

He warned that if the three agencies were working and building credibility then "let's not undo the good work".

The provisional name - The Academy for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching - has stirred emotions. Academics, who have spent the past couple of years debating the meaning of "enhancement" rather than assessment, are busy trying to define "advancement". There is also a perception problem around the word "academy". A creative thinking group survey shows most people see it as high status, exclusive and hard to enter.

The white paper announcement that 70 centres of teaching excellence are to be designated by 2007 has also complicated matters. These centres will receive £500,000 a year for five years and the chance to bid for a further £2 million in capital funding. This has worried the 24 subject centres and generic centre that make up the LTSN, whose funding ends next year.

The academy is key to the success of centres of teaching excellence, the funding council says. But no one is clear about the criteria for a centre of excellence and whether there will be overlap with subject centres. It is ironic that after so much time and energy has been spent on streamlining agencies and their functions, two new layers are to be introduced.

As Jeffrey Brown, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said: "The acid test for the academy will be whether institutions and individuals pay."

Papers: www.ltsn.ac.uk/genericcentre/ index.asp?id=18468

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