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.