How can learning and teaching help address issues of public trust?

Mark Jones introduces OneHE, a new initiative to develop a global network of educators.
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Higher education should be on a high. Student numbers are growing by ten per cent each year. The total number of educators will triple over the next decade.

And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that by 2030 almost half of the world’s population will pass through higher education at least once in their lifetime. National investment continues to flood into higher education where governments strive to develop high-skilled economies. In much of the world, the value of HE is self-evident and unquestioned.

And yet, in the West at least, the social contract between HE and society is eroding. In part, this is a consequence of the student-pays model and the emergence of a consumerist ethic that has changed forever the way HE is perceived. But it is also partially self-inflicted – a lack of transparency over senior pay, foot-dragging on diversity, and a short-sighted justification of degree value founded on lifetime earnings. Post-Brexit, and post-Trump, we look haughty, money-grubbing and elitist. HE is often viewed more as a private enterprise and less as a public good.

Rebuilding trust

We need to restore public trust and confidence in the value of HE – and to maintain it in those parts of the world where it is still enjoyed. Partly that means recognising that some of the old 19th century tropes don’t play well today, as Mark Leach suggested in the enemy within. But it’s also about recognising that, for many, the dynamic between HE and society has fundamentally changed. In a massified HE system, where very few universities generate less than 50% of their income from student fees, the student academic experience is a key determinant of public trust and confidence. Learning and teaching matters, now more than ever.

This is not to say that research and civic engagement are not important in strengthening the defence of HE. Nor is it to argue that HE’s wider moral purpose as social improvement is dead, though it is unfashionable. It is simply to say that the primary touch point between HE and society is the student experience of learning and teaching. We lose sight of that at our peril.

Making learning and teaching the best it can be is now vital to restoring public trust and confidence in HE, as well as being an inherently sensible aspiration. The question is how best to achieve this? For decades, there have been a hotch-potch of attempts to improve learning and teaching. Initiatives, government funding and agencies have come and gone across the world, some successful, others less so. But always with one common denominator – as imperatives to drive change from the outside.

The difference now is that the imperative comes from within.

A collective determination

The pressure on today’s educators is greater than ever before – and it is unrelenting. Massification, globalisation, increasing competition, new technology – being an educator today is very different to the experience of twenty or thirty years ago. The increasingly popular term educator – which encompasses academics, technicians, librarians and all those who, in some way, support student learning at all levels – tacitly recognises the way in which learning and teaching has evolved beyond the sage on stage to a richer, more varied experience.

As educators, we have embraced change and continue to do so. We want to improve learning and teaching and do the best we can for our students and society – despite what politicians choose to think. We want to develop our skills and expertise. And we want to do this together. We are fundamentally collegial, committed to sharing our knowledge, experience and practice, though we feel increasingly vulnerable and isolated. And this is true across the world. But, while research is well-catered for in terms of global groups, networks and fora – and, critically, has clearer pathways for career progression – learning and teaching has for decades been the poorer cousin.

A grass-roots approach

Which is why OneHE has come about. OneHE aims to be a global network of like-minded educators with a passion for learning and teaching. We want to bring educators together to share ideas, solve common challenges and inspire each other – to develop our practice and that of others for the common good. And we want to help existing networks to deepen engagement with their communities and connect them with others across the world.

At one level, OneHE is simply about providing educators worldwide with a member-led platform that they have lacked until now. A global directory allows individuals to find others working in their field who share their interests. Networks enable communities of practice to extend beyond borders and institutions, both within and between disciplines. Forums help educators to find solutions to common problems from peers and to offer support in return. And there is collaborative space to promote projects, making it easier for educators to find partners and develop joint working. All of which creates new opportunities for individuals to demonstrate their impact in a field that, beyond laudable initiatives like Advance HE’s fellowships, is starved of external markers of esteem.

At another level, OneHE is about encouraging a sea-change in learning and teaching globally. The challenges we face as educators are experienced across the world and yet there is also innovation and expertise in abundance that is waiting to be tapped. Leveraging technology, we can build on the wisdom of the crowd and capitalise on new collaborative tools. This principle underpins the OneHE Foundation, which will crowd-source innovation in learning and teaching from members and put these proposals to a vote of the membership to determine which idea is funded. Critically, OneHE is focused on needs-driven innovation, directed by educators themselves on their own terms and towards shared goals.

It is extremely important that, this time, funding is sustainable so that innovation can be cultivated, incentivised and rewarded for the long term. It is for this reason that OneHE will charge a small membership fee – equivalent to a cup of coffee a month – for individuals who access the full platform, while offering free space to private networks and free access to their members. This approach ensure that OneHE will remain a member-led space, free from advertising. And it is why OneHE was created as a profit-with-purpose company, capable of raising social investment that was previously unavailable to other bodies. The commitment to reinvesting in grants is written into the founding documents and social investors must sign up to this approach. OneHE is also looking at crowdfunding to enable greater community ownership.

Openness and transparency

This approach signals an important commitment to openness and transparency as the basis for lasting change and improvement. It reflects the new dynamics of power and influence: self-organisation, opt-in decision making, collaboration, crowd wisdom, sharing and a do-it-ourselves ethic. This is about educators acting together to improve the impact and effectiveness of what we do. We want to hear from all networks and individuals who share our passion for learning and teaching.

Now, educators have a new, global opportunity to be the best they can possibly be, for themselves and for their students. As has been noted elsewhere, there’s no reason for enhancement to have hard borders. Any improvement in the student academic experience that results can only help to improve the public perception of HE in the West and to maintain trust and confidence in other countries where the value of our work is understood and enjoyed.

5 responses to “How can learning and teaching help address issues of public trust?

  1. It seems remarkable to me that the old HEA directors are setting up a community of practice when they failed to further develop their communities of practice whilst working for their previous company. We were continually told through our partnership managers that this would be happening and nothing ever came to fruition. I suppose my question is, why should I trust them to deliver on these promises when they couldn’t deliver at a previous organisation. Also have they stalled the idea to implement this platform at the HEA, knowing they were always going to produce a separate company? For me, I appreciate that funding is back (a big tick in any educators box) but I fear that this company will only serve to benefit the companies owners and be used as an advertisement space for consultants. The inner me hopes this isn’t the case and we have now plugged the gap but the sceptic in me thinks this is a massive “we don’t like Advance HE” statement, which given the sectors appetite for a merged body seems very alarming. Just my thoughts, I maybe wrong and a collaboration between the two companies may exist, though it looks like the directors of OneHE have distanced themselves already from Advance HE.

  2. Mark Jones has hit the nail on the head with his comment that, ‘learning and teaching has for decades been the poorer cousin’ [of research]. The emergence of OneHE as a network of educators with the aim of inspiring one another is indeed a noble one. I will watch (and engage) with interest around how the funding model matures and begins to enable the sea-change to which he alludes. In terms of learning and teaching reward and recognition, many academic colleagues around the UK are now Fellows of the HEA, addressing the issue of ‘recognition’ to some extent, but the issue of ‘reward’ – something in my experience that academic colleagues would genuinely value, remains largely absent. I hope that OneHE, emerges as the sector organisation to address this missing and extremely important piece of the jigsaw.

  3. A useful reminder that Higher Education exists to serve society and public trust is central to our mission. Creating collaborative spaces for the global community of educators who want to share and learn from each other makes a great deal of sense.

  4. OneHE is surely the start of a new HEA, albeit with a smaller remit, that will look to grow to rival Advance HE now that learning and teaching doesn’t have a champion (given the other elements of Advance HE that are seen as crucial to their business model and the fact that all the HEA directors left in protest?!). I for one like the idea of creating a community of practice space; though I do approach it with a bit of caution given that there can be such a thing as too many communities and too many agencies operating within HE. I am however excited about the prospect of engaging with colleagues across the sector on a platform that will (hopefully) allow a great deal of collaboration and rich discussion to take place. If this is done right, it could remove one arm of Advance HE’s remit, as we don’t need two agencies to focus on learning and teaching. I am optimistic for OneHE and will be happily engaging with them. This is hopefully the agency that the sector needs opposed to what it has been offered in Advance HE.

  5. Anyone listening to Today on Radio 4 – today, 27th September – will have heard NUS President Shakira Martin say that, as she travels around universities, the importance of quality teaching and learning strategies remains at the top of students’ list of concerns. As (full disclosure) a former Board Member of the Higher Education Academy, I remain sceptical of the UUK Board’s motivation and process around the merger of the HEA, Leadership Foundation and Equality Unit. It always seemed more to do with top-down control than an openness to the broader engagement of staff, students and, yes, ‘outsiders’ in the pursuit of that quality. The make-up of the AdvanceHE Board and the disaffection of senior HEA staff rather confirms my suspicions. Thus it seems worthwhile giving OneHE a sporting chance, not least because it carries the fresh breeze of openness and inclusion that lies at the heart of good teaching practice and learning strategies.

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