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Why we should fund the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme

Following the decision to remove the funding element from the 2018 National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, fellows and others with an interest in teaching quality have been sorely disappointed. National Teaching Fellow Vivien Rolfe sets out their grounds for disquiet.
This article is more than 4 years old

Vivien Rolfe is Head of Herbal Research for Pukka Herbs. She writes here in a personal capacity.

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.

6 responses to “Why we should fund the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme

  1. The recent article from Vivien Rolfe raises a number of important points about the government and sector’s commitment to teaching excellence. Sadly, to point the finger at the HEA for the steps it has taken to protect a vulnerable scheme is to fundamentally misunderstand the way in which the NTFS has been funded and administered in the past, and how it operates today.

    To be explicit, prize funds and the management of the scheme are funded separately. The sector has benefitted from the patronage of HEFCE, HEFCW and DELNI over many years through funding they have provided for the prize fund and for their contribution towards the running costs of the scheme. I say a contribution because the management of NTFS has for the last four years been cross-subsidised by the HEA, from commercially-generated income, not from subscriptions. The scheme also benefit from the hundreds of reviewers who provide their time to support it every year.

    We are in the process of discussing with HEFCE, DELNI and HEFCW their future commitment to the scheme but, with the migration to OFS in England, we find ourselves in a hiatus. Faced with either ceasing to run the scheme this year or carrying on without the guarantee of prize funding, we took the decision to continue the scheme, essentially taking on the risk ourselves for the benefit of the sector. As for making the scheme free to enter for subscribers, it is only fair that the HEA’s resources are directed towards supporting members and those institutions that work with us and not towards others that choose not to.

    Far from the HEA failing to live up to its values of supporting educators, we are championing a scheme that we feel is so important to the sector that it cannot be allowed to fall through the cracks. That passion and commitment to teaching and learning will translate into Advance HE.

    I am sorry that the contributors feel that the HEA is not doing enough to support the scheme at the same level as in previous years. I can assure you that the HEA has not in any way gone against its founding principles and values; we hold them very dear. We are working hard to maintain the focus on and support for teaching excellence in highly uncertain times, as evidenced by our continuation of the scheme. NTFS is well supported by HEA and we are very grateful to the reviewers and supporters who contribute their time and enthusiasm each year. The big question we will be asking is what appetite does the sector and government have for supporting teaching excellence, either through NTFS or other schemes, into the future?

  2. What a load of hand wringing from Mark Jones. And it’s still not a straightforward answer – “Faced with either ceasing to run the scheme this year or carrying on without the guarantee of prize funding, we took the decision to continue the scheme…” So is there still the possibility of successful National Teaching Fellows NTFs receiving some financial reward in 2018?

    How would you feel if you know previous recipients received a ‘Rolls Royce’, then more recent NTFs gained a “Jag”; but in 2018 the lucky winners will get……..a pat on the back!?

    About the only thing I do agree with is: “what appetite does the sector and government have for supporting teaching excellence”? To me the answer is clear in “highly uncertain times”: Share the risk and commitment – If HEA were to offer each 2018 NTF £2,500, on the basis of match funding from the winner’s university, then this could offer a reasonable way forward; and £5,000 to each NTF to use for their further professional Development.

    Otherwise it’s – as they say in the NE of England -“all mouth and no trousers”.

    James Derounian
    Proud NTF (2007)

  3. Another NTF plug on Wonke which does not provide answers (beyond selective anecdotes drawn from past award-holders) to questions about the value of continuing to fund the scheme.

    evidence of transparent & credible selection criteria with decisions based on evidence consistent with these criteria;

    evidence these awards do more than acknowledge “good teachers” and actually raise the status of learning and teaching and/or improve teaching practices within HEIs;

    evidence of what constitutes teaching excellence (or even high quality teaching) and how to measure it.

  4. Bradbury – I’ve acted as an assessor on these awards and there are rigorous criteria – candidates do need to evidence impact of excellent teaching in and beyond their institution.

    Given the number of glittering research prizes it is a real pity the NTF scheme will offer nothing more than ‘recognition’.

  5. Sarah – teaching award programmes tend to go many years without independent, external assessment and validation of the three areas highlighted. While I’m sure you were a conscientious assessor, your involvement means that you inevitably provide an insider’s perspective. Reviews of national teaching awards have found significant pros and cons to similar schemes.

    See for example this paper investigating medical teaching awards:
    It surveyed over 1,300 publications and reached the following conclusion;
    “Limited evidence exists regarding design and utility of teaching awards. Awards are perceived as having potential for positive impact, including promotions, but may also have unintended negative consequences. Future research should investigate the impact of awards on personal and professional development, and how promotion and tenure committees perceive awards.”

    Regarding research prizes, exactly the same arguments apply. The most famous of all, the Nobel prize, has critics as well as supporters. For example, responses to Bob Dylan’s award last year.

  6. Here’s the thing though. Most institutions have two promotional pathways, teaching and research. In research it is relatively easy to get some money to fund your work. There are many pots out there, some of which are very achievable, others are more competitive (RCUK etc). However, can anyone think of a pot to support teaching activities? The Jisc funding is interesting, but not really run as a professional grant, more of a Willy Wonka-esq golden ticket situation, or worse, a popularity contest (who can get the most friends to vote for their idea). NTFS plugged some of that gap, however, it is still unusual for an institution to have more than 5 fellows. Most departments will have more people with research grants than teaching support. And considering teaching is 50% of most people’s jobs, that is a little disappointing.

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