The HEA is as relevant as ever, new leader says

Despite scaling back, the organisation has much to offer universities seeking to improve the student experience, says Don Nutbeam

September 11, 2014

The Higher Education Academy is more relevant than ever to universities, despite having to halve its workforce to cope with massive budget cuts, its new chairman has insisted.

Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, took over as chair of the organisation’s board of directors last month, possibly at the most difficult moment in its 10-year history.

The York-based outfit, which champions good teaching, was informed in April that it would lose all its funding council money by 2017, which accounts for about 80 to 85 per cent of its overall income.

That decision forced the HEA to make about 90 of its 180 staff redundant over the summer and to announce a slimmed-down portfolio of activities focused on just four areas of work.

But Professor Nutbeam, who has taken over after the retirement of University of Leicester vice-chancellor Sir Bob Burgess, believes that “the future is not as bleak as it may feel right now”.

“The change in funding arrangements does not alter the relevance of the HEA,” Professor Nutbeam said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

In fact, the organisation’s importance may have increased in recent years thanks to reforms that mean nearly all undergraduates are now paying tuition fees of about £9,000 a year, he thought.

“With students paying significant fees and going into significant debt, universities recognise much more that they need to provide an outstanding educational experience. An organisation that helps them deliver outstanding teaching will be more valued than ever.”

The HEA’s decision to “sharpen its focus” and talk to its university subscribers about what activities they value has also been useful in reconfirming the organisation’s purpose, Professor Nutbeam said.

Similarities in the differences

Given the scaling-back of its activities, some critics have questioned whether the HEA can justify its subscription fees to universities, which paid £2.2 million to it in 2012-13.

For example, how will it help to improve teaching in the disciplines, which was once the mainstay of the HEA’s activities through its subject centres? The costly centres were replaced by 28 “discipline leads” in 2011, but these subject experts have also been removed in the HEA’s austerity drive.

Professor Nutbeam acknowledged that the new approach of delivering teaching support through four subject areas – arts; humanities; health; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics – might not be to some academics’ tastes given that scholars tend to identify more strongly with their own individual disciplines than with more generic subject bands.

“Some will argue that there are major differences between teaching philosophy and history, but there are a number of similarities in how you organise classes and the type of assessment that is used,” he said.

Others have also worried about whether the HEA will reach enough of the sector through its new programme workshops and classes because it will now hold only 15 day-long events, featuring a range of discussions and sessions, each year.

More than 400 HEA discipline-based conferences, workshops and events were organised in the past academic year, while some 550 were held in 2012-13, reaching 15,000 delegates in total over those 12 months.

Some critics have even asked whether the HEA can manage to deliver adequate support for its four strategic themes – improving curriculum design, increasing student engagement, employability and accreditation and recognition – when its core funding runs out.

Professor Nutbeam was frank that the HEA can only “do as much as it can afford to do” on its tighter budget, which has been slashed by £4 million in 2014-15 alone. “Those are the cold, hard facts,” he said. He added that the organisation’s income-generation plans – which rest on attracting new subscribers and trebling its UK consultancy income – were also achievable.

“We will make a judgement call at each point, but we believe the HEA’s current business plan will sustain it in the medium term,” he said.

Alternative suggestions

Others believe that an entirely different model is needed.

Paul Ramsden, the HEA’s founding chief executive from 2004 to 2009, recently asked whether UK universities still needed the HEA.

Universities have come a long way in improving teaching and the student experience since the HEA was established, and its equivalent body in Australia, where Professor Ramsden is now based, had been abolished some years ago, he said in a piece for Research Fortnight.

He put forward an alternative model that envisages the HEA as a “small office attached to the funding councils [that] could support competitive tendering by firms and universities for projects”.

But Professor Nutbeam dismissed this idea, saying that Professor Ramsden’s proposal “reflects thinking that is 20 years out of date”.

“In fact, some leading Australian universities have been in contact with the HEA about our services, and the Australian National University was one of our first international subscribers,” he said.

He also rejected calls for the HEA to focus solely on its accreditation and recognition of teaching qualifications – a role in which it had had some success, with data due to be published later this year on how many academics at each university hold HEA-accredited certificates.

“I believe we have a credible business plan for a sustainable HEA that continues to provide an important service for universities,” Professor Nutbeam insisted.

One more pressing matter for the incoming chairman is who will replace him, as he is due to retire from Southampton at some point over the next 18 months, with his university currently seeking his successor.

“I’ve discussed it with the chief executive, and it will be one of the issues we discuss at my first meeting as chair,” he said.

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