Too tied to government

Roger Brown asks whether the Higher Education Academy is the right body to monitor higher education in the UK

June 19, 2008

Last month Times Higher Education reported on the departure of the Higher Education Academy's director of research and evaluation, Lee Harvey ("Controversy continues as HEA director leaves post", 29 May).

I should start by declaring an interest. I was a member of the committee that created the academy and was a founding board member as well as a board member of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) that preceded it.

The academy and the National Student Survey (NSS), the apparent cause of Professor Harvey's departure, have their origins in protracted and messy negotiations that tried to reconcile the Government's attempt to create at least a quasi-market in student education with the universities' desire to retain control over their core teaching function.

The academy resulted from a review, in 2002-03, of the agencies concerned with quality enhancement: the ILT, the Higher Education Funding Council's Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), the Higher Education Staff Development Agency (HESDA) and the Quality Assurance Agency. A committee chaired by Sir Ron Cooke, then vice-chancellor of the University of York, found that overlap between them was undermining institutions' efforts to raise quality. It proposed a new single agency that would combine the ILT, the LTSN and most of the functions of the HESDA. This was agreed, although most of the HESDA went into a separate Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

The ILT was created by the 1997 Dearing Committee. The committee believed that teaching needed a higher priority and that for this to happen teaching had to be "professionalised". It therefore recommended the creation of a body to accredit training programmes, commission research in teaching and learning and stimulate innovation. Unfortunately, by the time the ILT got going, the Higher Education Funding Council for England had effectively pre-empted it by creating the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme and the LTSN. The academy inherited these together, in due course, with the Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which were established after the 2003 White Paper on Higher Education's proposal, based on no evidence, that the best way of raising teaching standards was for institutions to compete to be recognised as "centres of excellence". As a result of its inheritance, the bulk of the academy's funding - £24 million of £ million in the current year - comes from the Government via Hefce, the remainder coming from institutional subscriptions.

Finally, the academy, like the ILT, established a research and development function. In this it was building on the tradition of applied research into teaching and quality issues by the former Higher Education Quality Council and the Council for National Academic Awards. It was cardinal that those carrying out this function exercised sufficient independence both from government policy and from the mores of the sector.

The NSS was the outcome of another committee chaired by Sir Ron Cooke. This looked into the information needs of students. It arose from a deal in 2001 whereby the burden of external teaching assessment was reduced but in return institutions were required to publish more information about quality. The NSS, intended to be a survey of graduates, was part of a suite of measures brought in to make the student market better informed and thus raise teaching quality. This was also the objective of the discredited external assessment regime that preceded it. It is virtually certain, however, that the institutional resources devoted to the survey would be better used in raising quality more directly.

There is ample evidence to suggest prima facie that the quality of student learning and achievement is not as high as it should be. Much, although not all, of this is the result of government policies. It is vital for the long-term health and reputation of UK higher education that an authoritative agency is able to monitor, analyse and report on this independently and rigorously. The brouhaha over Lee Harvey's departure at least raises the question of whether the academy is the right body to do this.

Roger Brown is professor of higher education policy and co-director of the Centre for Research and Development in Higher Education, Liverpool Hope University. He was previously vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University and chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council.

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