“I knew an old Higher Education sector that swallowed a fly”…

There was another nail in the coffin of the UK Higher Education (HE) sector today as we know it. I see the arena in which I have worked for 10 years undergo such recent policy changes that the underlying principles that drew me to work in HE are fading away. I didn’t sign up to a sector that cares more about league tables than learners. But perhaps because I’ve worked also in the private sector, I’m just not familiar with the comings and goings of education policy, infrastructure and investment. Perhaps this level of turbulence, poor economic management and lack of long-term vision is normal. In industry we used to say it was a “moveable feast” which at least brought welcome images.

Feast

CC BY-SA 3.0. Cara Chow. Feast. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manchu_Han_Imperial_Feast_Tao_Heung_Museum_of_Food_Culture.jpg

 

 

Today the HEA announced the delay of the 2016 National Teaching Fellowship scheme, quite understandable really as a result of financial pressure and insecurity of the future of HEFCE. It is beginning to sound like the song “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly”. The implication of each announcement sends ripples through the community and I feel now we are a few steps away from swallowing the “horse”. Here are some other notable ripples.

Higher Education Academy

To become a self-sustaining organisation by 2017. Well all I can say is that I wouldn’t be sitting here now if it wasn’t for the Higher Education Academy (HEA). I bring no baggage and memories of whoever or whatever was there before. I walked straight out of industry in to a lecturer job and I knew nothing about students and teaching of science. The HEA – subject centre for bioscience – offered an instant community. It was fast-food professional development – like pouring hot water onto your Pot Noddle and getting an instant meal – you attended the bioscience events and got an immediate sense of the profession and set of skills and resources on which to build your career. I was also participant in other subject centres, which was vital to observe approaches from other disciplines. You could pick the best thinking – the ‘designing out plagiarism’ materials from 2005 the subject centre for ICT I still refer to today. But for me the Bioscience Subject Centre was the ‘Bombay Bad-boy’ of them all. The community, expertise, research methodology and skills. I wrote for the first time, I published in my first peer-review journal and I presented at my first education conferences. I gained some funding. I got my first promotion to Senior Lecturer and then to Principal Lecturer. I have three National Awards.

TechDis

And then there was TechDis who provided technological support and guidance to support the needs of all learners. The team of staff were employed by the HEA, and from January 1st 2015, Techdis has been languishing helplessly on the internet archive. That the government can think so little of the education requirements of the general population is beyond belief. Some 6.8% of undergraduate learners who decide to draw down Disability Funding Allowance (excluding postgraduates and parttime learners and likely to be an underestimate) contribute to the diversity and richness of our learner population. That is still around 82,000 students in the UK. We commonly then also think of also of dyslexia – 10% of the population. So without even thinking too deeply about other differences and needs that our learners (and always overlooked staff) may be experiencing, the idea that we do not invest centrally to support the full TechDis service and the specialist expertise therein is incredulous.

It is deeply worrying to see the lack of visibility of the importance of diversity in universities across the board – gender imbalance, lack of BME participation. A quick Google search will direct you to a wealth of information including such from HEFCETimes Higher EducationScienceGrrl.co.uk and Sciencecampaign.org.uk. Parts of the sector are toxic with discrimination. And the most staggering thing for me in the last week or so was a colleague saying if a learner can’t spell by the age of 18 year that it is tough, they are an adult. You can pick up professional skills and knowledge relatively easily with a bit of training and investment. However, once discriminatory attitudes become entrenched, I would think it would be hugely challenging to change the culture and recreate a positive environment once more.

Cetis

And what about Cetis? Not that I understand much about technology but I know enough to appreciate you need standards of practice and uniform ways of working. Again, a small group who pack a big punch – they have provided the ‘brains’ behind educational approaches toward learning, assessment, diversity, new technologies and much more. Again I cannot understand why they are not supported through a little investment to recognise the essential work that they do. However I do believe they are presently holding their own and have become a sustainable organisation despite their transition in May 2015.

Jisc

Jisc have weathered an immense storm and undergone dramatic organisational change that in itself has to be an impressive success since the announcement to funding changes in 2013. However I do worry at what we are left with, and whether the education sector needs the newer commercially-focused organisation as opposed to passionate and expert staff who responded to the technological needs of the sector. The annual Digifest seems to position Jisc as a technology-broker, and through lack of project funding and the loss of those valuable networking opportunities, the result is the feeling of lack of engagement with academic teams.

I welcome the excellent online resources and few networking opportunities, there isn’t any support for digital innovation or professional development that we saw previously. I would think this will have a major impact on the competitiveness of the UK HE sector against global players. Jisc is nowhere in significant areas of activity including participation in open education, and has been noticeably silent in responding to major areas of challenge for the HE sector including the Teaching Excellence Framework.

National Teaching Fellowship Scheme

The NTF scheme has awarded around 700 fellowships to outstanding education professionals –teachers, librarians and professional support staff. Very different to the UK Professional Skills Framework (UKPSF) that rewards four levels of professional competency, the NTF scheme is a reward for excellence based on an annual quota and attracting a small amount of funding for those awarded. These individuals are often the champions within their institutions, leading innovation and questioning decisions that impact on their colleagues or jeopardise the spirit of their learning community. In a time where there is practically no research or project funding to support education endeavours, the funds are a welcome life-line for staff who otherwise would not be able to financially support projects or attend conferences and events. I dearly hope the announcement, now delayed until the Spring brings good news, but deep inside I don’t feel so optimistic.

So we’ve swallowed the horse.

But will we die?

By next year we will know not just about the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, and the fate of the HEA and HEFCE. This period of lack of investment and the prospect of establishing new professional organisations and regulators will take its toll on our education sector – ramifications not just for Higher Education but ripples across schools, college, adult and community sectors. The challenges ahead:

  • Rebuilding communities of practice and changing mind set and cultures will take time and investment.
  • New staff are reinventing the wheel and not sharing across their subject disciplines; they don’t know that a body of literature and practice reports are out there and why should they?
  • The lack of visibility of learner diversity in universities and support could be significant.
  • Lack of investment has pulled the rug from under our feet in terms of evidence-base – who is exploring urgent topical issues and informing the community?
  • What university – even now – is going to prioritise investment for learning and teaching over discipline research, and show me one already not investing in the next REF?
  • The poor curation of our literature-base and sector reports is a travesty and waste of public funds.
  • The loss of networks will erase sector ‘memory’ of past work, people and practices?

There is room for optimism

At least we have social media and new networks and communities can pop up in an instant. Great ideas such as the Wednesday evening #LTHEchat on Twitter is one example. However we cannot sustain a sector that increasingly relies on home-working and self-funding to participate. This maintains connections but does not fuel innovation.

Will the Teaching Excellence Framework bring optimism and provoke genuine change and recognition for learning and teaching in universities, or will it join the other key performance indicators on the league-table scrap heap? As observed in a keynote session at a national conference last year, do we need any more metrics, aren’t there bigger problems to solve:

Add the shoe sizes of VC’s into league tables! Would be just as accurate.

What can we do?

This is what I think and feel free to Tweet to me more or respond in the comments box:

  • We can respond to online e-petitions and provoke parliamentary debate.
  • You can gather your communities – professional bodies – institutions or even individually to blog, lobby and shout.
  • You can respond to parliamentary committee inquiries individually or as a group.
  • You can lobby your institutional leaders and decision makers.
  • You can lobby your students!
  • Form pedagogic communities within your institution.

And now for a poem

Being a Compleat & Poetickal Account Of RECENT EVENTS at the COMMITTEE of BIS