The UK HE sector is rightly regarded as world-class, attracting students from across the globe. But we cannot afford to stand still, we need to continue to innovate and continually look for improvements in our approaches to teaching, in order to deliver a thriving knowledge economy.
Through my role at the HEA I’ve long had the privilege, along with my colleagues, of being able to support and help institutions and individuals to develop and deliver first-class teaching. None more so than in the past year, where we supported senior leaders from across the sector tackling some of the biggest problems facing higher education in the United Kingdom, through a range of innovative strategies.
The HEA is in a unique position in being able to act as a hub of best practice for teaching within the HE sector- identifying, and sharing knowledge across the sector to benefit institutions and support them in the provision of a high quality academic experience for students.
It was from this starting point that we developed the Strategic Excellence Initiative for Vice-Chancellors and Principals (VCSEI), focusing on highlighting innovative practice, delivering visible enhancements in quality, and recognising and promoting examples of effective strategic leadership more broadly across the HE sector. Having invited HEIs from across the UK to put forward institutional strategies and plans for excellence, we identified 34 projects, 25 excellence initiatives, and nine enhancement initiatives to fund and support that would provide the most significant influence and impact across the entire sector.
In doing so, our aim was to raise the competitiveness of institutions and share best practice, based on our understanding of the current challenges the sector and students face. This initiative has highlighted how institutions, under the leadership of highly committed individuals, are prioritising and investing in the planning and delivery of creative and innovative strategic approaches to teaching excellence.
Covering a diverse range of sector priorities, which includes graduate employability, teaching excellence, student retention and engagement, and measurement and metrics – the strategies have been developed in-house by VCs, principals, and their senior leadership teams to demonstrate and create improvements in teaching, learning and the student experience.
The most important aspect of the chosen initiatives is that they are all replicable and can easily be implemented across the sector, and we recently saw the institutions involved in the initiatives come together to share their learnings. The outputs and learning from these initial projects all highlighted the potential for growth in our sector. While all the initiatives have made an impact in their first year, their full success and potential is yet to be realised.
The projects that focused on student engagement, success and satisfaction all demonstrated that when there is a concerted focus on student engagement (and drilling down into analytics at a granular level) there is a clear correlation between student engagement and satisfaction.
Specific examples include:
- Liverpool John Moores’ project, ‘Harnessing Effective Engagement with Engagement Data (HEEED)’, has changed how UK Engagement Survey data is brought into discussions among staff and students about teaching quality. This has begun a longer term process of ‘culture changing’ the institution from a focus on student satisfaction towards student engagement.
- The University of Essex’s project on online assessment has attracted a significant amount of attention from other universities. The project aims to design and deliver an online integrated assessment and feedback platform that allows multiple teachers to see students’ feedback and grading history. It aims to embed reflective and action-based feedback through a dynamic online system, a significant upgrade from current ‘analogue forms’ of teacher-student feedback.
- Initiatives exploring employability and skills from Aston University and Hartpury College proved that developing programmes with a specific focus on student achievement and graduate employability can also harness significant student engagement.
This granular focus on engagement applies for teachers as well as students:
- The University of Wolverhampton’s project explored increasing engagement with senior leaders, developing professional excellence in teaching and learning, and improving specific student analytics on progression and attainment in relation to this. By setting up a College of Learning and Teaching across the faculties, Wolverhampton has created a culture of change across the professional departments, empowering staff to develop the skills needed to support effective learning environments for students.
- The University of East Anglia looked at establishing an alternative set of authentic and rigorous metrics, such as student attainment and learning behaviour, to measure teaching excellence. The findings have already been shared with over forty other higher education institutions. It is not alone in evaluating and upgrading the use of data and metrics in measuring teaching and learning quality.
Many HEIs want to ensure they are ‘TEF ready’ and are authoritative voices on teaching excellence. Sophisticated use of the wide range of data available will become essential once the TEF is fully established. These projects are an opportunity to develop a better understanding and discourse about teaching excellence, as well as to contribute to the wider debates around the White Paper and the future of higher education in the UK. And the findings from the all the VCSEI projects are now being used to create learning and teaching resources and case studies that we will be sharing across the HE sector.
I firmly believe these 34 projects will significantly alter teaching practice in the sector, not just over the next 12 months – by which time we will have a better understanding of their impact – but over several years. Through innovative practice and collaboration, we are creating a new platform for transformative educational change.