People in higher education: Professor Sally Brown, teaching excellence and a little bit of history

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Since the turn of the century, nearly 700 people across the English, Northern Irish and latterly the Welsh HE sectors have become National Teaching Fellows. Beginning with a sought-after institutional nomination, and progressing through a detailed proposal and a panel comprising academic peers, institutional senior managers and education experts, each one can claim to be – without fear of rebuttal – a genuinely excellent teaching academic.

But where are these voices in the debate around the purported Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)? Surely ‘excellent’ teachers are precisely those who could best define excellence?

If the overall story of the NTF process can be told by anyone, it should be told by Professor Sally Brown. She worked, at the behest of HEFCE and Baroness Blackstone (then Universities Minister), on the development of the original scheme at the former Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE). She established the first NTF panel (with Sir Martin Harris as chair), administered the process until the merger of the ILTHE into the Higher Education Academy, then left to work on teaching quality enhancement within institutions (rising to become a Pro-Vice Chancellor at Leeds Metropolitan, now Leeds Beckett), gaining her own NTF award in 2008, and working as a consultant around learning, teaching and assessment.

Professor Sally Brown

“I’m coming into the last five years of my career,” she told me as I spoke to her on the occasion of her election as the chair of the Association of National Teaching Fellows, “and I really want to ‘end well’ – to focus on mentoring and supporting academics”. And the ANTF, a voluntary and independent membership body for NTFs, has long been the sleeping giant of HE teaching policy as well as a community with an unparalleled richness and diversity.

Drawing such a disparate group together would be a huge challenge, even for the woman who managed to convince fiercely independent ILTHE members to vote to join the HE Academy back in 2004. Sally’s ambitious start has been to attempt to draw together a widely agreed ANTF “response” to the idea of the TEF.

“Many people have talked about the use of impact case studies, as a parallel between the modern Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the TEF,” she notes. “In preparing nominations for National Teaching Fellowships, most institutions already develop these, and it would make perfect sense to re-use them”.

A similar case, perhaps, could be made for Higher Education Academy fellowship applications, especially at the institution-influencing ‘Principal Fellow’ level. Sally remains committed to being a “most critical friend for the only Academy we have” to the organisation that replaced the “often missed” ILTHE, the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) and the small team under Graham Gibbs that supported the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) amongst other pre-existing programmes around enhancing the quality of teaching.

[Wonks may wonder whether a simple count of academy fellows at the various levels would figure in the TEF budget. Alas, data quality – both at the Academy and as returned to HESA by institutions – is just too low for this to be possible. At formation the Academy was clear that it had no wish to be perceived as regulatory body, focusing instead on pure enhancement in partnership with institutions and individuals.]

Sally and I share a rich history with 00s HEFCE teaching initiatives – I ask her which she would cite as the most useful in enhancing the student experience. “Oh, the ringfenced TQEF funds, and the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL),”

“With TQEF, a learning and teaching unit had a ring-fenced budget, that couldn’t be used for anything other than supporting teaching quality. The funds supported institutional workshops, courses and initiatives – they sent staff to conferences to network and share ideas, they established learning and teaching as a part of the institution.”

TQEF was hugely popular amongst those interested in student experience a decade ago, offering as it did a local flexibility to dedicate support where it was needed. But the long-forgotten FDTL was perhaps a more surprising choice – wasn’t that just another bureaucratic competitive funding process, I ask?

“FDTL offered what was a substantial and sustained investment, targeted to address needs identified in subject review. It was also managed well, with clear expectations and accountability.”

Smaller investments do seem to be one of the stand-out features of this period of HEFCE investment, and Sally is hardly the first to make a case for such targeted investment. In comparison, the TEF feels remote and unwieldy, an instrument to offer another layer to a senior manager dashboard rather than a direct means of supporting teaching staff.

But, of course the debate about sticks and carrots in teaching is a cyclical one: these days, the less edible of the two dominates. But wasn’t the ILTHE another stick – a set of externally imposed “minimum standards” for teaching?

I’m wrong on two counts – firstly I am reminded that the ILTHE, and the standards it espoused, were explicitly owned by the sector (legally, via Universities UK and what is now GuildHE). And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the ILTHE was a powerful and meaningful community of practice. Perhaps the original idea was one of compliance, but what it became was a membership organisation that espoused beliefs that people wanted to sign-up to. The Academy still maintains elements of this, the ANTF (though by no means speaking for every NTF) has a similar feel.

Thinking back to Sally’s hope that she can spend the latter years of her career mentoring and supporting – I wonder if the TEF can become a similar vehicle for a community of interest based around a common idea. “Academic careers,” she muses, “are always surprising”. I’m sure the careers of those on whom the TEF will have an impact will be surprising, I hope they will feel mentored and supported throughout the experience.

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