Students and Universities - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Memorandum 44

Submission from the University of Hertfordshire

STUDENTS AND UNIVERSITIES

Summary

    — The University of Hertfordshire (UH) has elected to respond to the section of the Inquiry on the balance between teaching and research.— Two key issues here are the identification and recognition of excellence in teaching, as a distinct, professional skill, and innovation in professional practice. There is much that can be done internally to recognise excellence and promote innovation; this should be encouraged and balanced with work at national level. Until performance and innovation can be captured and measured, it will be difficult to challenge the dominance of research as the determiner of academic and institutional success; this situation does not serve the student experience well.— Responses to this Inquiry will reveal the differentiation of the HE sector above all else. Institutional mission does, and indeed should, drive questions of the balance of teaching and research, including investment in facilities, staffing strategies and reward structures, pedagogy and assessment. University mission now needs to be matched with funding and reporting structures to enable different types of university to deliver to their markets to their full potential; this is being constrained by a "one size fits all" approach that is no longer fit-for-purpose.

The levels of funding for, and the balance between, teaching and research in UK HEIs, and the adequacy of financial support for the development of innovative teaching methods and teaching/research integration

  1.  The weighting, and therefore funding and esteem, of teaching in higher education relative to research activity has been a challenge for some time, due in part to issues around the measurement of performance in teaching, as HEFCE's recent report to John Denham on measures of esteem indicated. There are two key issues to be addresses in this respect: the identification and recognition of excellence and innovation in the practice of teaching.

  2.  In terms of the identification and recognition of excellence, the individual National Teaching Fellow (NTF) scheme of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) has been a welcome and successful initiative. The highly competitive process keeps standards, and therefore esteem, high, both within the field and within institutions. Nine UH teachers have won NTFs since the scheme's inception and we will continue to encourage our staff to aspire to this level of recognition of their professional status.

  3.  We would call for the continuation of funding for the scheme but would also restate our proposal that the proportion of teaching staff holding such a Fellowship should be considered as a measure of university performance, in the context of a dependence on student survey data (usually the National Student Survey, NSS) as a proxy for teaching quality, compared to relatively robust measures for research quality. Student feedback will and should remain a key tool for universities to enhance the student experience, but cannot act as the proxy for teaching quality (see comments in paragraph 16 below).

  4.  Professional development for all teaching staff is also important in terms of meeting institutions' commitment both to students and staff. Hertfordshire requires that all new, inexperienced staff undertake its post-graduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE as a condition of probation (staff on fractionally staff are required to partly complete the programme). Successful completion of the Certificate brings fellowship of the HEA and 299 Hertfordshire staff have achieved this status. Engagement is actively encouraged through the appraisal process and we have a university level target of 50% of our academic staff achieving this status within the next three years. This use of targets to encourage engagement is a model that other institutions might wish to consider.

  5.  The recognition of excellence through career progression and other awards needs to follow if the esteem of teaching relative to research within institutions is to be raised. At Hertfordshire, we recently aligned readership and professorship criteria to provide a logical route for staff. We also make (through TQEF funding) small-scale innovation awards available for staff to develop and evaluate their academic practice. Vice-Chancellor's awards are made annually (the scheme recently received a PRCA national award), which includes an award for tutor of the year on the recommendation of students. We would suggest that all institutions should ensure there are a range of incentives and awards at different levels to motivate and reward staff for high/excellent standards of learning and teaching practice. As with the individual NTF scheme, the criteria for awards, particularly at higher levels, should include the dissemination of excellence and the impact upon other practitioners (and ultimately students).

  6.  In terms of innovation in professional teaching practice, the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF) and initiatives such as the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs) have provided a significant stimulus. At UH, the CETL funding has enabled significant innovation opportunities for staff across the university. The nature of the CETL means that its activities have been fully aligned with the university's strategic direction, as has the TQEF funding. HEFCE have recently published the results of their formative evaluation of the CETL programme in England, which highlights its key strengths; our experience at UH reflects that report. The subject centres are very useful sources of disciplinary support and include small-scale funding opportunities that facilitate innovation. There is a concern, however, that the (expected) end of TQEF and CETL funding will mean that support for innovation and evaluation will be more difficult to obtain in context where teaching funding is vulnerable to reallocations.

  7.  Flexibility is a key concept when thinking about innovation in teaching, particularly with the national ambitions for widening access to high-level skills and the need for up-skilling of the current and future workforce. E-learning, understood in its broadest sense, should be high priority in this context. Professor Sir Ron Cooke's recent paper to John Denham On-line innovation in Higher Education notes the potential role of some CETLs (specifically mentioning the University of Hertfordshire's Blended Learning Unit) in addressing national skills gaps.

  8.  Students learning in the work place are on core group of students needing flexible approaches, in terms of both delivery and assessment that fit the needs and priorities of that environment. Working with less traditional assessments needs open minded and creative teachers who are also able to ensure assessment is rigorous and meets the relevant level of HE learning.

  9.  Universities offering CPD/training provision to employees with face-to-face learning components, which are often run out of hours, need to put in place contractual arrangements (and reward mechanisms) that ensure evening and weekend teaching commitments can be resourced by staff with the necessary expertise. This could include employment through subsidiary companies to ensure flexibility and responsiveness to resource provision. Appropriate mechanisms to ensure academic standards and quality of delivery would also be necessary.

  10.  The question of the balance between teaching and research is also one about the academic portfolio, which is traditionally balanced between research, teaching and administrative functions. Although the balance itself has varied by institution, the principle of the balance portfolio has proved resilient despite a context of great change and increased complexity in terms of what universities deliver. We would argue that the balanced portfolio approach is not the way forward in this context, particularly for universities responding to newer markets such as workforce skills and business innovation.

  11.  Instead, we see the future as more specialised, with some academic staff focused on teaching, others on commercial activities, for example. An element of scholarship should always be maintained as a defining characteristic of the HE environment, but is not to be equated with research per se. Individual academic portfolios should be defined by people's strengths and interests, which will tend towards specialisation but also optimisation.

  12.  There is also a strong role for practitioners and professionals coming into the HE classroom and providing the latest specialist expertise as Visiting Lecturers. At Hertfordshire, their contribution is already considerable in business, the health professions, the creative and cultural areas and in education and we are extending this model to other parts of the institution. Staffing strategies need to be more innovative, for example blending industry/professional expertise with academic inputs as well as considering the contribution of alumni.

  13.  We would note that this is not simply about the balance between teaching and research, both of these activities being highly diverse. The debate should also be about the place of applied and collaborative research and innovation—which often crosses the boundaries of teaching and research—how that is recognised and rewarded in a sector that privileges pure research (despite general acknowledgement of the need to bring universities and business closer together).

The quality of teaching provision and learning facilities in UK and the extent to which they vary between HEIs, the suitability of methods of assessing excellence in teaching and research and the impact of research assessment on these activities

  14.  Universities with a mission that focuses on teaching will—and do—invest in teaching provision and learning facilities, however, this investment is not recognised fully in the measures of esteem that influence student, business and institutional behaviour to a greater or lesser extent. Quality will therefore vary greatly between institutions and is a function of mission and institutional strategy and direction. Funding by mission will allow those universities that focus on the student experience to continue to invest but also to have their performance assessed against appropriate criteria: one size does not fit all.

  15.  From an institutional perspective there are "across the board" Teaching Quality Information (TQI) measures such as the NSS, progression and achievement data and employment statistics. All have their limitations. There are also indicators that are used less universally, such as the number of staff achieving NTFs, winning CETLs, hosting national conferences and subject centres and winning competitive grants for learning and teaching research and development. Other indicators at institutional level include a commitment to ensuring staff have a teaching qualification such as the PG Certificate in Learning and Teaching in HE, encouraging staff to achieve fellowship status of the HEA, operating peer review of teaching schemes, providing funding opportunities for innovative and scholarly practice and ensuring that reward and recognition structures encourage excellent teaching.

  16.  There is a significant tension with the NSS being a tool for improvement and also used in league tables. There are documented instances of abuse (and probably an additional unknown amount of this activity that is undetected) because moving higher in the league tables might be deemed more important than getting students to reflect fairly on their experience of an institution as part of an enhancement exercise. Although attempting to improve the situation, this year's enhanced guidance on administering the NSS simply reinforces the fact that this instrument is not suitable for meeting conflicting agendas. Furthermore, Paula Surridge conducted an analysis that suggests that NSS results may be significantly affected by the profile of the students in an Institution. Simple comparisons of data scores are potentially misleading (http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/ourwork/research/NSS_interpreting_data_nontechnical_guide.pdf). If it is to be promoted and used as a tool for enhancement, the NSS should be removed from all league table calculations.

  17.  Recent discussions about introducing value-added measures for more accurately judged measures of the impact of an institution upon its students are fine in theory but acknowledged as problematic in practice. This is explored in paragraphs 239-241 of HEFCE's report to John Denham on understanding institutional performance.

  18.  The assessment of individual excellence also has its challenges. Student feedback questionnaires are framed according to local institutional need and subject to disciplinary and other effects (as with the NSS, direct comparisons of scores can be misleading—the person with the highest score is not necessarily the best teacher). This makes comparison between individuals difficult and between institutions impossible. Provided such evidence is viewed with an insight into its limitations, however, it can be useful as an internal development and enhancement mechanism. Sharing practice amongst universities could improve local practices and even yield indices that are allow greater comparability across the sector.

The responsibilities of the Government and HEFCE in assuring (a) the quality of teaching provision and learning opportunities in UK HEIs; and (b) the balance between teaching and research in HEIs

  19.   HEFCE's work in developing "spidergrams" to describe institutional mission should be pursued and the implications fully debated. The logical conclusion is differentiation of funding, with institutions funded to deliver on the mission they have declared. In this context, robust measures of esteem and performance are critical; if we persist in a situation where only research performance can be measured with any degree of satisfaction all we will achieve is a slow process of differentiation by attrition, which will fail a large proportion of students. We have an opportunity now to achieve differentiation by design and produce a high-quality spectrum of HE provision, within which all students can find the right mix and balance to help them reach their potential.

  20.  A move towards a differentiated sector will need to be matched in reporting structures and processes. Currently, these represent a barrier to universities pursuing an agenda of innovation, engagement and flexibility to meet the needs of a more diverse student body. There needs to be an open and frank discussion between Higher Education Institutions, HEFCE and the Higher Education Statistics Agency on developing reporting that is fit-for-purpose.

  21.  Two judgments, one on standards and one on quality, are now given by the Quality Assurance Agency. In terms of standards, light touch should be the aim for those institutions with a good track record in this area. In terms of quality, the direction of travel assurance has been towards placing greater trust in internal processes and we would want to see this trend continue. The emphasis should be on innovation and on the sharing and implementation of good practice in teaching through peer engagement. Internal Student Feedback Questionnaires should be used as a tool for improvement and enhancement and this is where the NSS will be most useful for institutions. The focus must be on the student experience rather than on the processes involved.

December 2008






 
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