Universities should shape their own lecturer training programmes to reflect their institution’s distinctive character rather than adopt a one-size-fits-all model, the new head of the Higher Education Academy has said.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Stephanie Marshall, who took over as chief executive last month, said she was keen to help universities to individualise their staff training programmes rather than impose a generic template on institutions to improve teaching standards.
Professor Marshall said she wanted to “defer to the autonomy of different institutions” as they create their continuing professional development programmes.
Her desire to help universities to further differentiate their courses comes at a time of mounting concern over the increased influence of the HEA, which accredits the majority of teaching qualifications approved by the sector.
Undertaking these qualifications has been an individual choice for academics until now, but there are fears that they may become mandatory over the next few years as universities are now required to declare how many of their staff are qualified to teach.
From next year, information on how many academics hold teaching qualifications at each institution will be published for the first time – and may possibly be included in their Key Information Sets – which would increase the likelihood of universities pressuring their staff to study for the credentials.
Under Quality Assurance Agency guidelines released last month, schools and faculties are also encouraged to publish information about staff qualifications because “prospective and current students [will] have an interest in who will be teaching them”.
For many, the new guidelines and information sets are a back door route to the compulsory teaching qualifications for all academics championed by Professor Marshall’s predecessor Craig Mahoney, now vice-chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland, and Lord Browne, who authored the 2010 higher education review.
But Professor Marshall, who was previously deputy chief executive (research and policy) at the HEA, said she was less keen on a prescriptive approach, and stressed that she wanted to “support the autonomy of institutions” while also improving teaching.
Her organisation’s approach to promoting teaching qualifications “responds to the autonomy of different institutions and works in partnership with them”, she said.
Indeed, supporting teaching excellence by increasing the number of qualifications held by staff can help universities to sharpen their own identity and develop a distinctive brand, she added.
“If you look at somewhere like Plymouth University, its strapline is the ‘entrepreneurial university’ and that ethos is embedded in everything it does,” she said. “The curriculum is directed towards business, and developing teaching excellence can be a part of that.”
Professor Marshall is now in arguably the sector’s top job for promoting teaching, but she took an unusual route into the academy via the US, secondary school teaching in east Yorkshire and a management training consultancy.
Born in Yorkshire, she moved to Detroit at the age of 5 as her father, an aircraft engineer, sought work in the then-booming “motor city”.
She later completed a postgraduate certificate of education and taught at Beverley High School, near Hull, where she rose to become deputy headteacher before joining her alma mater as a lecturer in educational studies in 1988. Her attention turned towards higher education teaching in 1990 when she was asked by York’s vice-chancellor Berrick Saul to develop its first training programme for academic staff, which became one of the first programmes accredited by the HEA’s predecessor, the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.
Professor Marshall, who holds a chair in higher education at the University of Manchester, was also a provost at one of York’s colleges, which sparked an interest in higher education leadership that led to her becoming director of programmes at the Leadership Foundation.
Having joined the HEA in January 2012 as deputy chief executive, Professor Marshall is well acquainted with the organisation and the issues facing it over the next few years.
One key question still to be decided is the fate of its postgraduate surveys – both for taught and research students – that provide the only sector-wide point of comparison, but whose results cannot be viewed by students.
Many believe that the surveys, which include data from 48,401 postgraduate research students this year and 54,640 taught postgraduates in 2012, are ready to be published with breakdowns by institution similar to the undergraduate version, the National Student Survey, now in its eighth year with about 304,000 respondents.
But Professor Marshall is not so sure, saying both surveys work well as an enhancement tool because universities can privately compare their results against those of similar institutions.
“Institutions are using the information to have important conversations about what works well and what is not going so well,” she said.
The nature of the postgraduate survey, with students asked about their engagement with their courses, might not lend itself to easy student comparison in the same way as the NSS, which is based on student satisfaction, she added.
Professor Marshall may also have to wrestle with issues over the HEA’s future funding model, which some believe is too reliant on funding body grants, which were cut by almost £5 million to £19.4 million in 2012.
Only £1.1 million of its £23 million income last year did not come from central funds or institutional subscriptions, raising the prospect that it may need to ask its 45,000 HEA fellows for more cash – possibly through annual subscriptions – if further cuts are made.
It is not an approach that Professor Marshall favours, believing that the HEA can increase its consultancy work, such as teaching training activity overseas, or attract new international subscribers, to make up any potential losses.
“Obviously we have to look to have a sustainable financial model,” Professor Marshall said.
“But our core business is ensuring students get the best possible learning experience at university and our focus will remain on that.”