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Teaching quality enhancement in England: the commemorative teatowel

In mapping out the history of sector teaching agencies in England - and developing an iconic family tree you can download and print off - David Kernohan has a disturbing realisation...
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s been a quiet revolution in English HE policy. It appears that teaching quality and the student experience is no longer a problem to be solved by collective action on a grand scale – institutions merely may choose to improve their teaching if they feel that the market demands it.

For someone who cut their sector teeth in the 2000s era of big spending on teaching quality enhancement at multiple levels, this is a perplexing low point in government perceptions of change management. With OfS retreating from policy interventions of any kind, with the Higher Education Academy losing all remaining central funding as it merges into the Advance HE, we have to seriously ask who in England – if anyone – is actually thinking about the student experience nationally?

While the Scottish system has remained loyal to their “enhancement themes” the recent choice to focus on analytics suggests an instrumentalist turn that meshes with trends in the rest of the UK.

Dearing and “The Future of Higher Education”

Lord Dearing called – as many had before him – for an evidence-led revolution in higher education teaching practice. His words energised stalwarts in SEDA and elsewhere, successive Labour governments put money behind his promises – ensuring that all academics had access to research-led support in teaching, and that those who wanted to do their own research has funds and clear national support to do so.

HEFCE were not strangers to this – running a series of funded projects (FDTL) linked to and explicity addressing Subject Review findings, and supporting developments in educational technology, since the 90s. Dearing’s recommendations (and the 2003 White Paper) added a very visible agency superstructure to these efforts – with the Learning and Teaching Support Network and the Institute for Learning and Teaching brought into being, later to merge to become the Higher Education Academy.

But the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund – which included ring-fenced allocations for learning and teaching support in each institution, alongside the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme – was perhaps the most popular intervention. Every institution was required to develop a Learning and Teaching Strategy, owned at a senior level, in order to access TQEF funding. And annual reports were required in order to monitor the way in which such funding was used against strategic goals.

The decline and fall

I’ve argued on Wonkhe before that the CETLs were the moment when the dream turned sour – 74 five-year funded projects (chosen by a panel led by one Madeleine Atkins in 2005) should have prompted a sea-change in practice, and kicked off a rolling allocation at a scale and ambition to rival the REF. But poor decisions at a national and local level, continued complaints from vice chancellors about ring-fenced funding, and the dawn of austerity, saw any hope of “CETLs 2” diminish rapidly. Even by the time evaluations were being launched it was clear that the golden age was over.

Meanwhile, HEFCE was busy extracting itself from funding arrangements with a number of sector agencies – beckoning in an era of closures, mergers and institutional subscriptions. The HE Academy changed Chief Executives rapidly, but was always caught between loyalty to its constituency of rank-and-file staff and a need to curry favour with the senior managers who sign the cheques. When their subject centres closed in 2011, the future seemed even bleaker.

Bell and HERA

By 2015, sector agencies were seen as a burden – one of many unwanted financial commitments for vice chancellors to rail against. It was the academy subscription letter that prompted its owner – Universities UK – to overturn a subscription model it had already approved, and launched a review that sent many a beacronymed sector stalwart running for cover.

Meanwhile, the TEF signalled an end to teaching enhancement policy in England – the invisible hand would adjust teaching to a quality level that satisfied both students and senior managers. A set of indicators that every institution would seek to raise with sticks rather than carrots had no need of educational research – after all learner analytics and learning gain meant we could identify what needed to be done in the seminar room by peering at data tables.

The LFHE was the most financially viable agency of all (it seems that VCs don’t like to skimp on senior staff development) and became the recipients of the less flush Academy and Equality Challenge Unit. Bell also called for closer links between Jisc, QAA, and HESA – an M5 group that has thus far seen office sharing and back-office consolidation.

Surely there are more mergers to follow – the number of rumours we have heard even this year suggest that our diagram may need to be further updated in the months to come. So there’ll be no teatowel for now, but do please enjoy this pdf and raise a glass or mug to the time we thought we could improve teaching practice by giving better support to those who are doing the actual teaching.

Remember these acronyms, these schemes and plans, because once it was different. Once there was the hope that someone took teaching in higher education seriously.

Those agencies in full

A pdf version, formatted for printing on A3 (preferred) or A4 paper, is available here.


16 responses to “Teaching quality enhancement in England: the commemorative teatowel

  1. Great concept, David. A gatefold album sleeve might be more appropriate than a tea towel, though. HEFCE end date should be 2018, of course. And what about the HEQC?

  2. I am somewhat at a loss to understand why Enhancement Themes are in quotations. Can you explain why?

  3. Although Enhancement Themes are very big news in Scotland – it is terminology nearly unknown south of the border. I used quotes to be sure people were aware that this was the correct name of the approach (which incidentally is looking far more sensible than the English one these days).

  4. @william good catch on HEFCE dates, that’s been fixed.

    I wondered about HEQC but went for subject review instead.

  5. You can’t include everything, of course, even on a XXL tea towel. But the HEQC was the forerunner of the QAA, and much more enhancement focused. Subject Review was the QAA’s version of TQA, which was HEFCE’s baby. HEQC conducted institutional audits (rather than subject reviews) and emerged from the CVCP’s Academic Audit Unit in 1992 to counter the funding councils’ new roles.

  6. I would like to suggest that your characterization of the current Scottish Enhancement Theme, Evidence for Enhancement, as focused on analytics and instrumentalist is a little unfair. The Theme draws on a 15 year legacy of the Scottish universities collectively working together to learn from best practice – in some cases developing that best practice – to improve what we do for the benefit of all our students.
    The current Theme is about optimizing the use of information to help us understand what we do, how we could do it better and how we can tell others about the improvements we’ve made. The focus is much wider than analytics alone and never forgetting our students and staff are more than numbers. Indeed, significant aspects of sector and institutional work focus on how to capture, listen and respond to the diversity of student voices. Throughout we recognize the value of making intelligent use of a wide range of evidence to enhance strategy, policy and practice.
    Want to know more or get involved? – see my article on Wonkhe
    There is more info on the Enhancement Themes website
    Find out first hand by coming to our Conference on 7 June 2018 in central Glasgow – Evaluation, Evidence and Enhancement: Improving the student experience

  7. Maybe I need a beach towel…

    I was trying to focus on enhancement where possible – as per the article. But there is certainly scope for this to be done on a much wider basis.

  8. My inner-nerd insists on correcting a couple of minor inaccuracies here. First the M5 group was announced in March 2016 after a couple of months discussion between HESA, Jisc and QAA and nearly a year before the Bell review recommendations were published. Second, for the tea-towel, HESA was incorporated on 23 November 1992 and came into being (the first staff being appointed) from 1 January 1993. The date of 1995 on the graphic fails validation!

  9. For those just joining our conversation – we are updating this document based on information and suggestions received. So some of the earlier comments have now been acted upon.

  10. This is great, but it could be more usable/readable if it followed the convention of family tree diagrams and structured things in order of time from top to bottom.

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