'Tribal' rites: HEA subject centres' decade of academic togetherness

On the eve of restructuring moves, scholars speak of the network's impact. Rebecca Attwood writes

November 4, 2010

Ten years ago, Times Higher Education reported on the creation of subject centres under the headline: "What is your subject centre doing for you?"

Next week, the Higher Education Academy's board is expected to decide the future structure of the system, which provides subject-specific support for teaching via a network of 24 hubs in universities around the country.

The HEA is reviewing its structure after being told it will lose one-third of its core funding by 2012-13. The board has already agreed that the HEA should operate from a smaller number of sites and units, while maintaining "a subject and discipline network approach".

John Sloman, director of the Economics Network subject centre, said a key strength of the centres was their ability to tap into academics' "tribal" tendencies.

"Teaching, say, the performing arts is very different from teaching social work or economics or history. There are common issues, such as assessment or feedback, but the way these manifest themselves is totally different," he said.

The Economics Network runs workshops for new lecturers and graduate teaching assistants, giving them the chance to discuss issues with peers from other universities.

Rather than being a generic university training programme, it offers a focus on the discipline that means that participants "really come alive", Professor Sloman said.

Meanwhile, he added, the "bottom-up" approach of subject centres means they can respond to issues of concern to front-line academics.

Typical subject centre activities include running conferences, workshops and student focus groups, publishing guides, supporting "e-learning advocates" and issuing teaching awards and small grants.

The grants, usually sums of a few thousand pounds, produce "a huge return on fairly tiny amounts of investment", Professor Sloman said. Subject centres have also established networks linking departments in universities across the country.

Michael Kelly, director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, went further in his praise, claiming that subject centres were "one of the most innovative approaches to quality enhancement in the world".

THE asked its reader panel for their views.

Jon Scott, academic director of the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology at the University of Leicester, said his subject centre "represents by far the most valuable aspect of the HEA. For those engaged in research, there have always been great benefits from engagement with the wider research community.

"Until the advent of the subject centres, the equivalent opportunities to meet and discuss subject teaching, to exchange ideas, to be supported, were extremely limited."

Anne Tierney, a teacher at the University of Glasgow's Faculty of Biomedical and Life Sciences, said the UK Centre for Bioscience had had "a profound effect" on her career. It offered "a real community that strives to improve and share innovative bioscience teaching".

Chris Hopkins, professor of English studies at Sheffield Hallam University, said his centre had helped develop subject-specific ways of thinking and talking about learning and teaching, "discourses that have been used to articulate and reflect on current practices and assumptions and to develop better, or to try alternative, ones".

One lecturer, who asked to remain anonymous, was less positive about his subject centre.

"I have a strong impression that they have received generous funding to pursue a very limited number of projects, the results of which have not been widely shared," he said.

"They did not respond to my requests for help and advice, and I would not notice or miss them if they were gone."

According to Andrew Blake, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of East London, some subject centres have been "impressively active", but he added that it was difficult to discern whether this had led to agreed improvements in teaching and learning.

"As we face the next round of cuts, we need to ask not what our subject centres can do for us, but how are we going to cope in their absence - or, if they survive, why so, as front-line teaching jobs begin to disappear?"

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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