Professional standards in higher education need a global perspective

For Jianuo Yang, changes to the UK professional standards framework need to look at the way it is used internationally.

Jianuo Yang is an undergraduate student studying education at University College London.

Internationalisation of education standards is a beneficial and inevitable trend. To lead in this trend, we need to provide the script and allow the world to dot the Is and cross the Ts.

The UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) is currently being reviewed to accommodate changes in higher education since the last update over a decade ago.

Julie Baldry Currens, a consultant at AdvanceHE and accreditor for the UKPSF since 2011, cited “internationalisation and globalisation” as one of the five focuses for this review. Alex Bols, deputy chief executive of GuildHE who is in charge of a number of policy areas including quality assurance, described the goal of transforming UKPSF towards a more globally generalisable framework as a move toward “a PSF for HE all around the world”.

Since the UK sector is internationalised to a significant extent, and the UKPSF is a framework already being used internationally (there are currently over 13,000 fellows based outside the UK in more than 100 countries) – what do we need to do to make sure the UKPSF is effective institutionally, locally, and globally?

Creating a universal language

In order for the UKPSF to become the universal language in higher education around the world, it needs to remain elastic as a guiding framework but allow for culturally specific alterations.

Baldry Currens says “the UKPSF, despite having the UK in its name, just works for other countries’ universities as well”. Policy borrowing is a common strategy in adopting “what works” in other countries, and this elasticity allows more room for differences, but it does not guarantee generalisability. Insisting that the UKPSF can be adopted by other countries with different political ideologies and cultures, without any changes and supplements, could exacerbate UKPSF’s reputation in the academic literature as being colonial or Eurocentric. There had been historic concerns around this in New Zealand – and in Australia an earlier “University Teaching Criteria and Standards Framework” incorporated Aboriginal cultural opinions on learning alongside material from the UKPSF.

Elasticity is clearly important, but it is not enough. I feel that granting freedom to national systems that are adopting the UKPSF to add elements that tailor to their own education systems and culture is what is missing. The Race Equality Charter (REC) is a perfect example of a combination of elasticity and cultural specifications on the institutional level. It is a non-prescriptive framework that only provides a “script”, and facilitates universities to develop their own strategies for addressing racial inequalities.

I would recommend that when UKPSF is shared internationally, it needs to be more than just a simplistic translation. The cultural reinterpretation of each concept should be the main focus, and involving other countries to participate and add culturally-specific concepts could boost the internationalisation of the UKPSF.

Inclusion for all locally

It is often assumed that the UKPSF is designed for academic staff only, but staff in support roles (such as IT, library staff, student service staff and technicians) are also encouraged to become fellows.

Alex Bols explained that some of the educational goals being explored globally through teaching include “sustainability, mental health and SDG goals”. These do not just demand increments in curriculum breadth, but it also requires peripheral areas around teaching, such as the campus environment, and extra-curricular activity to work accordingly and support on these issues.

This is reflected in the transition from government to governance in the UK and the global policy landscape, foregrounding changes in different policy actors’ status. Karen Hustler, assistant director for fellowship and accreditation at AdvanceHE, told me that “52 per cent of academics in the UK sector have the fellowship currently, and it is easy for people to assume that the UKPSF fellowship is solely designed for academics, but it is open to all staff that teach and support learning in the sector”. Helping everyone, including professional staff that support learning in higher education institutions to become fellows and encouraging non-academic staff to gain recognition for the important work they do supporting student learning involved should be a priority.

One of the obstacles that are stopping non-academic staff from getting involved is the language used to describe the four distinct categories in the UKPSF:

  • An Associate of the Academy (AFHEA)
  • A Fellow of the Academy (FHEA),
  • A Senior Fellow of the Academy (SFHEA),
  • and A Principal Fellow of the Academy (PFHEA).

The terminologies that are being used imply a strong connection to academic and leadership roles, which may be a reason that non-academic staff have been reluctant to get involved. Moreover, the relationship between each category also remains equivocal.

While the initial intention was to establish four non-hierarchical categories that simply describe different roles, the wording (“Fellow, Senior Fellow and Principal Fellow”) has the potential to be misinterpreted as a hierarchy. Once the majority perceive and accept this rigid structural understanding, potential applicants will automatically start with applying for AFHEA, and climb their way up. It is incorrect to think that any student-facing role should be considered superior to others, or that one role somehow requires more professionalism than others. Providing more clarifications or renaming the categories so that they simply describe different roles and do not imply hierarchy would help.

Baby steps towards diversity

It is our responsibility to push students a little out of their comfort zone to promote a key factor towards internationalisation, inclusivity.

Diversity comes with internationalisation, and inclusivity issues are significantly visible on campus. An academic from UCL Arena Fellowship, Silvia Colaiocomo told me that home students reported relatively low satisfaction levels (on NSS) when being exposed to a significantly diverse campus. As the NSS informs perceptions of the academic quality of a provider, she noted that

to ensure inclusivity, it is not to emphasise on differences, but to find the similarities among diversity

Differences clearly still exist and need to be acknowledged so that a variety of student needs and demands can be fulfilled. For example, international students could have different dietary requirements and religious beliefs, if universities could offer facilities (or space) and services that address these differences, it could make the campus more welcoming. The same applies to neurodivergent and neurodiverse students – physical environment and support matter a lo.

Ultimately, a campuses welcoming atmosphere and inclusivity require both facilities and people’s positive attitudes – so some promotion of culturally-specific differences from time to time could be fruitful in making student life at university more interesting and colourful. The universities could start with artwork and language that are less likely to trigger negative emotions, and slowly move towards food and other aspects of cultures.

In conclusion

It is true that the UKPSF has been adopted in a number of countries , but I hope UKPSF truly welcomes and includes this global diversity. The UKPSF needs to be inclusive on three levels, inclusive of global voice, inclusive of non-academic staff, and inclusive of all cultures on campus.

The draft revised PSF can be found here; please comment via an online survey which is now open, here. The deadline for completion of the survey is 17 July 2022.

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