Now is a good time to strengthen collaboration over teaching

Keith Hennigan explores the vital role that teaching partnerships play in bringing different providers together to create something new.

Collaborative teaching partnerships were built to create opportunities to do higher education differently: to meet the challenges of industry, student experience and new groups of students accessing higher education.

When they are done well, they bring the best of the higher education sector together with a level of depth that no other project, conference, or sharing of best practice could do.

In a time of crisis for the sector, it’s unlikely that teaching partnerships are simply continuing as usual. There may be an inclination to retract, to look inwards for solutions, and partnership links can naturally suffer. In reality the opposite approach is needed – for the better of both partners and the partnership.

It goes without saying that every partnership is different, but with everyone in the same boat, facing the same problems, there’s no reason not to be sharing solutions – and for that reason if no other, the publication of a set of principles for partnership during the pandemic from Independent Higher Education (IHE), Universities UK (UUK) and the Association of Colleges (AoC) is welcome.

Many established teaching partnerships were forged by the need to innovate. From the experience of creating these partnerships, we have a resource that should not go unused as we address the needs of both students and providers during Covid, as we deal with the consequences of the pandemic and map out plans for higher education.

Why do we partner if not to find new ways to do things in periods of stress? The guidance signals that more work can be done to support aspirational partnerships in the future.

Sailing the SAE

SAE Institute has been partnered with Middlesex University for over twenty years, and having that established relationship has been invaluable as we’ve sought to tackle the issues arising from the pandemic.

Like so many small and specialist providers, the point we continually stress is just how small we really are, in terms of staff as well as students. Where a larger university might have a department dedicated to a particular area, we’re likely to have one person – who may also be covering for a different “department” a couple of days a week.

There are advantages to this: the SME mindset means we think on our feet, we have a certain flexibility and speed of operation that has been invaluable over the last four months. At the same time, there’s a huge burden of work on very few shoulders, and this is where a strong partnership supports us in a way we couldn’t manage ourselves (it’s also why groups like Independent HE are so important in helping to keep our voice heard within the sector). The guidance highlights this vital scaffolding, which didn’t just evolve due to Covid-19, but is at the very heart of what teaching partnerships are all about.

An SME mindset with scaffolding for success

With a narrow subject focus and low staff to student ratios, the very smallest of providers can often react more decisively, giving both partners the opportunity to test new approaches and quickly identify potential student issues.

As the guidance suggests, good partnerships support this benefit with integration at all levels of the partnership, from academics and student support, through to strategy and governance.

In our case, Middlesex University has a representative on SAE’s Academic Board, an administrative team who speak with counterparts in SAE, and Link Tutors who engage with faculty and student representatives. That kind of integration is what enables the collaboration and flexibility referenced in principles three and four of the guidance.

Over the last six months it has allowed us to have rapid conversations to address alternative assessment strategies, or “No Detriment” approaches to progression – and has provided flexibility while ensuring that effective quality assurance is not compromised. In the current climate, waiting for approvals from an endless round of committees could leave us dead in the water when a rapid response is needed – we have been able to move fast without compromising quality or standards.

Simultaneously, Middlesex partnerships staff and Link Tutors have the opportunity to take something from SAE. As a provider delivering two-year accelerated degrees, we have had an added impetus to get ship-shape, fast.

Academic year?

The very first point in the guidance considers “planning for 2020/21” but for SAE, each trimester is rolling into the next without the luxury of a summer break to regroup and prepare. Partnerships can deliver the best of both worlds: while SAE have been developing plans for new approaches to delivery, or starting to bring student back to campus as we have from mid-July – all helped by that small provider flexibility – Middlesex can share the benefits of these experiences, and use them to feed into their own planning.

In this way, the partnership works on a macro level to support staff, and students. Where a single staff member may only have time to react, a larger team may have space to reflect, to share, to strategize. The same holds true for entire institutions of relative size.

At the moment, Middlesex has the opportunity to look ahead and plan for September, and we’ve been very grateful for the sharing of resources and between our institutions. We have the support of those planning structures that our small administration simply doesn’t have time for, including some really helpful resources for staff training, student welfare and so on.

All hands on deck

No partnership is always smooth sailing but for small providers, the support of a partner can make an enormous difference; while for the larger partners, the approaches developed and trialled by specialist institutions are a valuable forum for generating and testing ideas that they may be able to adapt or adopt for themselves.

Where there are resources and support structures for student wellbeing, especially, let’s try to open these up and get the most out of them. Creativity comes from constraint, and we’re all under severe constraints; now is the time for creativity and innovation to be shared.

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