The 2018 National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS) has generated an unexpected reaction within learning and teaching circles, following the removal of the “prize funding” for successful applicants.
For almost two decades, NTFS funds have actually been treated more like research grants, supporting an individual’s professional development, and helping their work achieve greater impact. The scheme this year also requires participating institutions to be Higher Education Academy (HEA) subscribers, with a fee of £1,500 for non-subscribing institutions. The five contributors to this article – all National Teaching Fellows (NTFs) – regard these changes as a retrograde step.
It’s not about the money, money, money?
When the NTFS was launched in 2000, fellows received £50,000 to implement a project plan, disseminate their work across the sector, and to develop communities of practice within (and beyond) their institutions. The award dropped to £10,000 in 2006. Since 2016, awardees received just £5,000 for disseminating practice and contributing to events.
This year, award winners will be the first group to receive “national recognition for their outstanding impact”, but no development funding. They will also be less well-off than many staff who receive funds from their own institution for learning and teaching activity, typically for more local achievement.
This change is at odds with the oft-claimed aims of encouraging excellence and impact beyond host institutions. Indeed, the criteria for the scheme include demonstrating excellence “beyond the nominee’s immediate academic or professional role”. This also raises a moral question about working beyond a substantive post, presumably requiring excessive working hours for no additional pay. Rather a sensitive topic at the moment.
This change to the NTFS also represents the sad loss of the final bastion of enhancement funding for learning and teaching There are no more small pots of money from agencies like the Higher Education Academy (HEA) or Jisc, all of which has helped academics with an interest in teaching to develop their practice, leaving a lasting impact on the sector. Whilst we recognise the financial limitations affecting higher education and are not pressing for a system which is ‘overpriced’, or represents poor value for money, completely removing the funding sends an especially unfortunate message at a time when learning gain and teaching excellence are supposed to be high on the agenda.
A brief look at the impact of the scheme
There are numerous evaluations of the scheme, although quite a few NTFs point to their own institution being less than helpful in the aftermath of the award. Impact can be wide-ranging:
- Individuals talk of the award as life-changing and confidence-building.
- Promotion and career progression has happened for NTFs, many of whom are national leaders in learning and teaching, or within their professional field.
- Many NTFs have used their award to support and enhance the work (and careers) of colleagues.
- Collaboration between NTFs has led to important initiatives with lasting influence across the sector.
Here are the personal examples of the authors in brief, with fuller testimonies on the Association of NTFs blog.
- The NTF changed my life – I gained a Professorship and a renewed focus on educational development. This enabled my move to lead the Educational Development Unit at Bradford, where we managed to influence institutional policy and bring in over a million pounds of project funding to investigate sector issues such as e-portfolios and student transitions. (Professor Peter Hartley – NTF 2000, Education)
- Because the NTF money was awarded to the individual NTF they could use it on ‘experimental’ ideas. One example is when I took a student to FOSDEM (Free Open Source Developers’ European Meeting), to talk about his final year project. (Professor James Davenport – NTF 2014, Computer Science)
- My 2012 NTF funding of £10,000 was a lifeline for me, as I moved universities at that time and therefore had the autonomy to develop my open education work. (Vivien Rolfe – NTF 2012, Open Science Education)
- My NTF was of huge personal and professional benefit. It took three institutions and five attempts to finally gain this much desired and valued award. Meeting the other NTFs in Liverpool Cathedral, and sharing the time with senior staff from my institution and my family, was an evening I will never forget. Who else would have funded Jan Sellers’ Labyrinth work? Or Viv Rolfe’s OER work? Or my own Jisc work, which delivered benefit not only to my institution, but to the whole sector? (Debbie Holley – NTF 2014, Digital Innovation)
Has the HEA shot itself in the foot?
The Government’s initial claims of using the TEF to frame teaching excellence have dissipated into a series of increasingly complex metrics. It now bears no relation to that inspired and tireless educator who is making a difference to a hugely diverse set of students. Academics are now regularly dipping in to their own pockets to attend HEA meetings. The HEA was set up to inspire and develop educators, and by failing to support the best national (indeed international) educators, it is failing to meet its own expressed values, as well as letting down future generations. Can it’s successor, Advance HE, do better?
The evaluation and dissemination of one’s professional practice are criteria for other professional schemes, such as the sector-owned UK Professional Standards Framework. How will aspiring teachers meet these standards with no access to funding? It would be a shame if such schemes were to be dumbed down, especially when many universities have calibrated their internal awards system so there is a progression route which can ultimately lead to an NTF application – largely seen as the top of the teaching pyramid for the most outstanding educators.
Teaching and research equity. Now you see it, now you don’t
The issue of funding to accompany an NTF award also lies at the heart of any agenda for parity of esteem, or equal acclaim for teaching as research. The early ambition for the TEF was to ensure that teachers were not the “poor cousins” of their research colleagues. There is already sector-wide disparity in the level of reward and recognition for outstanding teachers – for instance there is no single approach to career progression for those in teaching jobs, although this differs by institution.
The sense that your teaching excellence has been reviewed and calibrated externally by your colleagues is empowering, and the fellowship process itself often leads to new opportunities further afield. To cease funding, while not devaluing the prestige of the award per se, will almost certainly fail to address issues of parity of esteem, hampering the efforts of future generations of NTFs to build upon their success.
I got bills I gotta pay, so I will work, work, work every day
The scheme this year requires payment from institutions who do not, or are unable to, subscribe to the HEA. This is a shift away from being an inclusive scheme for the recognition of best teaching practice, to one for those most willing to pay. The NTF now lurks in the same shadows as other pay-to-enter excellence schemes, such as the team teaching (CATE), and Global awards. As the venerable NTFS stumbles in this direction, one has to question whether the existing fellows, who give their time freely as ambassadors, mentors and reviewers for the HEA, will remain happy to do so?
How can individuals strive for teaching excellence when they increasingly have to self-fund, and have no access to learning and teaching development money from the sector? We think this year’s changes to the scheme relegate dedicated teachers, and professional service staff, even further as the “poor cousins” of the sector.
Vivien Rolfe is grateful to Peter Hartley, James Davenport, Debbie Holley, and Stephen McHanwell for their contributions to this article.