Slimming down but still generous with advice

HEA doesn't need subject centres, advocates argue, but critics disagree. Jack Grove reports

September 1, 2011

The Higher Education Academy's plan to scrap its teaching support centres sparked an outcry when it was announced last autumn.

More than 1,000 people signed a petition calling for the body's chief executive, Craig Mahoney, to reverse the decision to shut the 24 subject centres, while MPs raised their plight in the House of Commons. Others registered their concern in the press, including a letter of protest to Times Higher Education in November signed by 180 academics.

But despite the unease, the shake-up has continued apace.

Roaming discipline and subject leads have now started to replace the centres, which will be phased out by the end of the year. The overhaul will result in the loss of the equivalent of 130 full-time posts, with the HEA's workforce falling to about 120, of which 80 are "academically focused".

The question now is whether the streamlined HEA will have enough staff and the right structures in place to fulfil its remit of helping academics to improve as teachers.

John Craig, the organisation's head of social sciences, who will run a team of 10 discipline leads, believes the new structure can deliver a good service despite the loss of many highly skilled pedagogic experts.

"There has been a funding cut and a downscaling, but this is a chance to do things more effectively and efficiently," said Dr Craig, who is assistant dean of social sciences and law at Teesside University.

"For instance, we used to run early-career development events for first-year teachers, where a number of staff would get together for a residential weekend course to share their experiences. These were run separately for sociology, politics and anthropology, but with tips for doing lectures that apply to lots of subjects. We found you could run these events collaboratively, with subjects splitting into groups during the weekend."

He added: "Having these workshops full provides better value for money and there are other ways to streamline administrative work at the HEA, so resources are pushed to the front line."

Dr Craig, who previously worked with the HEA's Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics, based at the University of Birmingham, said the new model could retain the best aspects of the subject centres.

"I see lots of academics involved in the new structure who were part of the subject centres. It's not surprising that it is a pool of people that we use," he said.

He added that he would continue his duties at Teesside alongside his HEA role: "I am a practising academic and will continue to teach and research. It's part of the job - that is no different to the subject centres."

Other initiatives unveiled by the HEA include teaching grants worth £1.5 million, which will be awarded to individuals, departments and institutional partnerships over the coming year. Of this cash, £315,000 is available to individuals who can claim a maximum of £7,000 to encourage "innovations in learning and teaching that have the potential for sector-wide impact".

The HEA will also continue to offer online resources for academics and there will be workshops, events and publications in different disciplinary areas.

The changes follow criticisms by Professor Mahoney, who said the HEA had been too "bureaucratic".

He argued that there was duplication between subject centres, particularly when it came to admin.

With the organisation losing a third of its funding by 2012-13, Professor Mahoney has said the new set-up will deliver 75 per cent of the HEA's income to staff - drawing on more than 500 academic associates - working directly with academics, compared with just 50 per cent previously.

Not enough beef

But many have argued that the slimmed-down organisation will simply lack the resources needed to offer a UK-wide service for academics across all subjects.

Michael McMahon, assistant professor of economics at the University of Warwick, who is involved with the Economics Network Subject Centre, based at the University of Bristol, said that cuts to administrative support would also put many academics off.

"The work done currently by Economics Network is facilitated by the excellent and detailed work by subject centre staff with specific expertise and skills built up over the course of 10 years building the network," he said. "One roaming subject expert, who turns over at regular intervals, cannot match the existing coverage, skills and experience.

"I think a lot of people who currently give their time and effort for nothing will not want to be part of the new model if it entails even more work for little or no remuneration."

He added that it "cannot be overestimated" how much of the admin burden of his work with the network is dealt with by support staff. The result, he said, was that his own contribution of running teaching courses was easier for him to justify as part of his wider role as an economist.

"I think (the change) is very sad because all of this is happening at exactly the time when the economics profession is starting to engage more with the issue of delivering excellence in teaching," he said. "This surge in interest is, of course, motivated by the recent changes to undergraduate fees and the expectations that will go with (them)."

Professor McMahon pointed out that the subject centre "brand", years in the making, had gained such strength that others were starting to copy the approach.

"It got to a point where other countries started to emulate the model...but then the HEA decided to kill it off," he said.

"Most medium and large universities already provide an in-house teaching and learning centre covering generic approaches to effective teaching. If the HEA can offer little in addition to this type of training, there is no point in universities engaging with such a body when they have one of their own."

Sue Timmis, senior lecturer in technology enhanced learning at Bristol, said roaming subject heads could also struggle to engage with academics.

"One person is not going to be able to meet the needs of a whole subject community and I find it hard to know what they will be offering," she said. "As a regular academic, I've received no communication about any new model myself and the HEA website still seems to point mainly to links and contacts for the old subject centres. It's not at all clear what's on offer, but presumably this is a reduced set of services."

Like Professor McMahon, Dr Timmis also questioned the wisdom of ditching a highly regarded system for an untested model.

"The subject centres were around for more than 10 years...and were well known by the subject communities, but this took years to build up," she said.

"I always felt confident in recommending that colleagues approach their subject centres for advice because of their long history and close connections to the community. The HEA is beginning from a cold start and it seems to be treating each subject community as the same...it's difficult to see how this can be any sort of replacement."

Dr Timmis added: "It's so sad to see so much good work tossed aside. I can't see how this new model will do anything to address the demands for better teaching quality."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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