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CETLs and the ghosts of teaching excellence past

Taking the long view of government-led teaching excellence initiatives, David Kernohan returns to the Centres for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CETLs), and draws lessons for the sector and the government today.
This article is more than 8 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

A government obsessed with creating a higher education market, with price differentials that sought to justify the raising of fees, with a very visible national focus on evidenced excellent teaching within institutions as a purported counterbalance to research funding: Two thousand and three was clearly a very different world.

The Future of Higher Education, like its successor Students at the Heart of the System (2011), was a government white paper linked ostensibly to an earlier report – in this case Dearing – and was a device to offer the impression of serious policy making in order to cover up a nakedly avaricious raise in tuition fees.

One strand in particular (chapter 4) focused on the need to “rebalanc[e] funding so that new resources come into the sector not only through research and student numbers, but through strength in teaching”. This represented the third great cycle of English investment in learning and teaching quality enhancement: the first being the mid-90s technology focus of things like the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) alongside the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) counterbalance to the controversial Subject Review, and the second being around the turn of the millennium with the (again, Dearing-highlighted) launch of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILTHE), the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF), the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS).

Lots of acronyms, lots of stories. A big part of the thrust of The Future of Higher Education was to tidy up this landscape (almost impenetrable to the outsider), drawing together the Higher Education Academy with an explicit ‘enhancement’ remit as one (single-cornered) ring to rule them all. But there was a catch.

The earlier activity had been aimed largely at practitioners, actual academics and staff developers who were working very much under the radar at institutions. Even the institutional level TQEF was ring-fenced, so became the life-source of a range of ‘learning and teaching units’. These supported the introduction of a range of interventions in academic practice, emboldened the fields of research into higher education, and essentially kickstarted an academic discipline that we could refer to as ‘HE quality enhancement studies’, complete with journals, conferences, and a critical heritage drawing on everything from British cultural studies, to education, to psychology to philosophy…. a grab-bag of perspectives and tools, a genuinely exciting and refreshing cross-disciplinary movement…

The Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – or CETLs as they rapidly became known – were very different. The existing constituency for teaching enhancement activity, the aforementioned institutional units, were not those that were in the mind of civil servants. This was aimed straight at vice chancellors.

I remember how the CETLs were initially seen in teaching enhancement circles – a visitor from another star, blank, featureless. Hanging in the air in exactly the way that rational policies don’t. The pitch was to grab the attention of institutional leaders where it was most easily attracted: the institutional bank account. A reality-shifting £315 million pounds seemed to bend light around it, the closer we looked the harder it was to pick out details.

The CETLs were a HE-centric echo of Michael Barber’s then-fashionable ‘Beacon Schools’ – an attempt to highlight excellent practice via a very visible reward, and to capture excellent practice so others could watch, and learn.

At this point in my career I worked for HEFCE as part of a small team that administered and ran the CETLs. The only certainty we had was that these centres had to happen and had to be big enough to see from low earth orbit. Everything else was negotiable. We could (and did) change the name from ‘Centres of Teaching Excellence’ to ‘Centres for Excellence in Learning and Teaching’. We could (and did) drop the ‘recognised’ status for centres successful at stage one of the (mandated, unchangeable) two stage bidding process.

Attracting the attention of institutional managers brought out the lawyer in many of their underlings. Our FAQ was an early realisation that even a taut, old-school-HEFCE-standard, funding circular would not be enough to hold back the tide of questions. The vagaries that smaller and more targeted projects were a strength of the process, became a giant time-sink. £315 million pounds! Every question you can imagine was asked and answered.

Apart from one.

Why CETLs? – By this, I mean what were CETLs for and what would they do? The pressure was to deliver, not to deliberate. Our rear-guard action defined the details and the legalities– but a policy is more than details, and the CETLs never truly became a policy. 256 sets of four solid comb-bound bids arrived at HEFCE’s office at Northavon House one Friday in autumn 2004 – for a moment the questions ceased, the data was gathered and the digestion began.

Writing a bid is a curious experience at the best of times – a summary of a conversation never had between a loosely sketched interlocutor and an idealised collective. Risk registers demonstrate an ability to sail above any number of imagined sea-monsters, budgets march in neat columns past clearly demarcated milestones. The difference between outputs and outcomes means more than the difference between love and death.

Writing a CETL bid must have been a thousand times worse. Reading one was. The certainties of the project were distorted and disjointed, looming at odd angles. The words faded and the meaning remained: “we need to win this money… our jobs, our lives, depend on it.”

To the august panel (and just look who the chair was) who were called to weigh apples against oranges, to do the impossible, the CETLs team must have seemed as devils – insisting on metricising the human, on judging where one cannot judge. Which is “better teaching” – lab skills for trainee nurses, or reusable learning objects? A student journal for undergraduate historians, a virtual hospital? And adding into this the merits of the – inevitable and speculative – building work covered by the capital component of the possible award.

At the panel meeting I will always remember the groan – that groan as the decision was made and we saw the impact on us, our friends, our colleagues, our stillborn collegiality. The groan of the human calculations that followed the airy, surreal nuministics of a hypothesis that became real. That groan will be the last, first, worst thing I ever hear. A dying breath. The perils of keeping it real.


Letting a thousand beanbags bloom? Creativity Zone at the University of Brighton CETL, 2007

There was never huge support, or even broad tolerance for the CETLs. Though some centres did affirm and further support excellent practice (the Reusable Learning Objects CETL was a personal favourite in this regard, acting as a precursor of the open education movement) without the searingly insane levels of finance available, there would have been little interest. One respondent to the HEFCE CETL consultation captured the mood well:

“Like the millennium dome, this is an off-the-cuff idea which has become solid through political will rather than any good reason, and the taxpayer will pay the price with no benefit.”

Maybe the bidding process was the best expression of the point of the policy? Certainly it focused the collective attention on a search for ‘teaching excellence’, or something that an independent panel might mistake for it. More so than any announcement of success (or failure) afterwards, CETLs were awards to have been awarded, not projects to run. The publication of the list of CETLs is the moment that should have been evaluated, a point beyond which general interest and press coverage tailed away. But there never was even a proper national CETL launch – only a brochure that could be left lying artlessly in a VCs waiting room.

Incredible as it may seem, the intention was initially for a regular competition. CETLs as direct parallel to QR funding. Five hundred thousand pounds a year for five years, plus up to two million pounds of capital funding. The next should probably have been in 2010 by that reckoning. Imagine that. More than a quarter of a billion pounds. In 2010.

Even in 2005, the note to successful centres suggesting that significant further capital was available at the cost of a single side of A4 and a budget felt like too much. And the guidance on IPR that encouraged CETLs to bottle and sell their secret sauce rather than share with the sector seemed like a step into the past, as MIT, Yale and Utah State gave teaching resources away under an open license in the US and the new Academy attempted to foster the sharing of excellent practice in the UK.

Far beyond the all-important symbolism, the actual impact seems like an off-colour coda. The CETL programme was evaluated twice, based on a range of limited reports from the 74 centres that received funding. (No-one thought to review those that didn’t). With ring-fenced funding for institutional L&T work a dim memory, small projects rapidly becoming a thing of the past and dwindling support for national initiatives and a climate of short-term-measurable-benefit-focused austerity – surprise – expensive and speculative centres don’t get sustained without ring-fenced funds. Even where genuinely good and useful work (and good and useful people) are supported. Who knew?

But even these reports failed to make an impact. A few snarky headlines in the trade press, a bad joke that no-one felt entirely comfortable laughing at. Where was the UKeU style outrage? Where was the inquiry?

Complicity. The day teaching quality enhancement lost our innocence.

The extent to which CETLs ‘poisoned the well’ can be seen in a wholesale retreat from the very concept of competitive bids – a move too far into the mindset of the market, where institutions make speculative small investments to drawdown greater benefits. Almost like students applying to university. Risky anathema to the institutions they are applying to – institutions requiring a guaranteed return on every investment.

TEF proposals were initially rumoured to focus on the clearly measurable, reducing the money and focusing on the prestige. The introduction (eventually) of a panel to assess institutional statements of excellence is too close to the CETLs for comfort. The TEF team will still see endless calls for clarifications, questions, attempted game playing, but very little improvement in practice. Institutions will develop systems and bureaucracies to feed the TEF evidence machine.

A good TEF level may be just the latest in a line of ‘teaching’ badges, of interest only to vice chancellors and university rankers and at best highlighting an institutional ability to market the quality of their teaching convincingly.

3 responses to “CETLs and the ghosts of teaching excellence past

  1. As someone who was ‘in’ on the CETL project – from advising on bids to sitting on advisory boards – this paints a pretty accurate picture. What’s missing is that the CETL ‘grand projét’ involved hundreds of skilled, talented, experienced, committed academics and support workers who produced and/or inspired some extraordinary work. The problem was that, apart from a very few cases, that work stayed inside the walls of the institution. Also, in most cases that work disappeared once the funding ceased, unless it had the good fortune to be qembedded into the day-to-day work of the institution. However, what is indisputable is that many instituions gained a shiny new building or facility.

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