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

Memorandum 49

Submission from the Higher Education Academy


  1.1  The Higher Education Academy is an independent organisation owned by Universities UK and GuildHE. Our mission is to support the higher education sector in providing the best possible learning experience for all students. We have strong links into the higher education sector including through our programme of institutional contacts with each university and college in the country, our network of 24 subject centres working with academics in different discipline areas, and our growing community of Associates and Fellows of the Academy.

1.2  The Academy:

    — provides national leadership in developing and disseminating evidence-informed practice about enhancing the student learning experience

    — operates as an independent broker, enabling expertise to be shared across institutions and subject areas

    — works at multiple levels, with individual academics, subject communities, departments, faculties and institutions.

    — works across all parts of the UK, recognising the distinctive policy contexts and priorities of the devolved administrations but also providing opportunities to share expertise among them.

  1.3  The Academy is an important resource to the UK higher education sector in accelerating and facilitating improvement and change. In the four and a half years we have been working we have found institutions keen to work with us to enhance the quality of students' experiences. The evidence of our work is that UK higher education institutions take quality seriously and look to make best use of available support. The Academy does not believe that there is a need for increased levels of external monitoring and regulation of the sector.

  1.4  Our Chief Executive, Professor Paul Ramsden, was asked earlier this year by the Secretary of State to provide thoughts on the future of teaching and the student experience. While Professor Ramsden reported in a personal capacity he consulted very widely with the sector. The Higher Education Academy endorses many of the recommendations in his report, which is referred to in this submission [1]

  1.5  We have drawn on our research and our work with academics and institutional leaders across the sector to present this evidence to the Committee. We have restricted our comments to those areas where we have a specific perspective related to our remit of improving the student experience.

  1.6  The main recommendations in our evidence are:

    — there is no need for greater external monitoring of the sector (1.2)

    — students need to be properly prepared for higher education (2.2, 2.3.)

    — the benefits of higher education should be made widely available (2.4)

    — the sector needs to work to adapt provision to meet a wider range of student expectations (2.4)

    — teaching and research are both important components of the student experience and cannot be separated (3.3)

    — university teaching should be excellent, based on national criteria, and be properly rewarded and recognised (3.1, 3.3, 3.8)

    — the extent to which the Professional Standards Framework is used to share good practice should be reviewed (3.6)

    — that the recommendations of the Burgess group on degree classification be taken forward (4.2)

    — that incremental changes to quality assurance recommended in the report from our Chief Executive to the Secretary of State take effect (4.5)

    — that contact hours are not taken as a proxy for quality in the student experience (4.6)

    — that the idea of students as "customers" be discouraged (5.1) and student engagement be promoted.


  2.1  The Higher Education Academy is a strategic partner in the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme. We work in a number of related areas detailed in the paragraphs below.

2.2  Preparing students for higher education.

  The Higher Education Academy supports the notion that preparation for higher education is important. Many of the Academy's subject centres work with staff in different subject areas to help them help students make the transition from school to higher education. Details of a number of these initiatives can be found on our website. [2]

  2.3  The Academy endorses the recommendations made by its Chief Executive in his recent report to the Secretary of State, including creating a programme of support to help universities and colleges gain better understanding of the expectations that new students will have of higher education.

Widening participation

  2.4  The Academy has not taken a view on whether the government's specific widening participation targets are appropriate. However we believe that the benefits of higher education should be made available to as many people as possible, and that opportunities should continue throughout life. We are also clear that the targets and the associated agenda place new requirements on the sector to design and deliver high quality higher education that meets a wider range of student backgrounds and expectations.

2.5  The Academy has a specific remit to support the government's widening participation agenda. At the heart of the Academy's approach has been to make information more widely available about how the sector can best adapt to suit a wider and more diverse student body.


  3.1  The Higher Education Academy believes that:

    — There is no natural divide between teaching and research.

    — The distinctive characteristic of the student experience in higher education is the opportunity it gives students to benefit from teaching that is informed by research and professional practice.

    — Students have a right to teaching that is provided by professionals, who have acquired expertise in teaching according to the nationally defined criteria set out in the Professional Standards Framework [3]

    — Excellence in teaching should be recognised and rewarded equally with research.

    — Universities and colleges should show institutional commitment to excellent teaching

    — All academics should teach. This applies at all levels, from postgraduate students to professors.

    — There is a particular need in the more applied or professional areas (health and social care, engineering, law etc) for a curriculum and learning experience that develops graduates who can refine relationships between practice, its evidence base, and the research questions emerging from the relationship between them.

  3.2  The Academy supports HEIs to promote the professionalisation of and excellence in teaching through a number of means outlined in the following paragraphs.

  3.3  The UK Professional Standards Framework, developed by the Academy on behalf of the sector, requires academics to demonstrate the incorporation of scholarship, research and professional practice into their teaching activity. Research-informed teaching is a requirement of the Professional Standards Framework

  3.4  The Professional Standards Framework was launched in 2006. There is strong anecdotal evidence of its impact across the sector, and the majority of HEIs have programmes for initial and continuing professional development accredited by the Academy against the framework.

  3.5  The Academy accredits provision by universities and colleges of programme aligned to the Professional Standards Framework. This:

    — supports institutions in the professional development and recognition of their staff;

    — provides a means of promoting and sharing good practice in professional development;

    — supports and encourages individuals to enhance their professional practice in learning and teaching;

    — provides recognised qualifications for individuals and recognition by the Academy as an Associate or Fellow.

  3.6.  Despite the apparent success of Professional Standards Framework there has been no systematic review of the extent to which HEIs are using it to support the development of teaching. The Academy would recommend a review of the framework and its role in encouraging the sharing of practice within and between institutions.

  3.7  The prevalence of accreditation of initial and continuous professional development for staff in HE, the Academy's system of Associates, Fellows and Senior Fellows, and the National Teaching Fellowship scheme in England and Northern Ireland all suggest that there is an appetite for clearer recognition of the importance of teaching. The Academy's own recognition scheme, linked to the Professional Standards Framework, has seen numbers increase to around 22,000 since the Academy was formed.

  3.8  The Academy will be publishing in the new year the results of a survey of institutional practices for promoting staff based on teaching. The Academy supports the recommendations made by its Chief Executive in his paper for the Secretary of State on making an allocation of funding to higher education institutions to develop more robust criteria for appointments and promotions based on teaching.

  3.9  The role of National Teaching Fellows is important on two levels. By supporting networks of fellows, such as the Association of National Teaching Fellows, it is possible to speed the sharing of effective practice across the sector. The fellowships also provide a level of accomplishment to which academics can aspire. They are complementary to the specific fellowship schemes run by individual institutions.

  3.10  An important constituency is postgraduates who teach. The next generation of university teachers is likely to come predominantly from the postgraduate community. Therefore, another consideration in the training of teachers is the opportunities for postgraduate research students to gain experience of teaching (and training in that regard). A number of the Academy's subject centres run specific projects in this area. In addition, the Higher Education Academy's Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2008 [4] looked at the experiences of postgraduate research students in 30 HEIs. There were over 16,500 postgraduate student responses, from which:

    — Just under half (48%) of the research students agreed that they had been given adequate opportunity to gain experience of teaching.

    — A similar proportion (43%) agreed that they had been given an adequate support and guidance for their teaching.

    — Nearly two-thirds (62%) agreed that the experience that they had gained through teaching had been worthwhile

  3.11  A further significant constituency is the community of work or practice based mentors and teachers. Students regard these teachers as role models and look to them for the vital integration of academic theory with practice. As increasing numbers of "non-traditional" students are attracted to HE and as career pathways (and curricula) become more flexible it is to be expected that these teachers will have more responsibility for students' learning. There are instances of good practice in their support in some areas, for example education for health and social care, but these may need to be shared more widely


  4.1  Degree classification is a matter for HEIs, operating within national frameworks for quality and standards overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency. Our Chief Executive's report to the Secretary of State lists compelling evidence that the undergraduate honours degree is a highly-valued qualification. The Higher Education Academy believes that the UK has sufficient mechanisms in place to maintain the integrity and reputation of the degree system.

4.2  Nevertheless the current system of degree classification is a blunt instrument for providing specific information on student achievement for students and for employers. The Academy was represented on the steering group convened by Universities UK and GuildHE on the degree classification system in UK higher education chaired by Professor Bob Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester and Chair of the Higher Education Academy. The final report, Beyond the Honours degree classification, [5] reflects extensive consultation with universities and employers and is an important staging post in the development of the higher education system. The Academy supports its recommendations and has been working with a group of 18 institutions on designing and piloting the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), which was proposed to provide an opportunity to recognise the breadth of student achievement, over and above traditional degree classifications. We are also working with CRA and JISC to explore the development of student record systems and the software required to ensure the HEAR's success.

  4.3  The strong international reputation of UK higher education is built on confidence in the quality of teaching, research and assessment. The specific role of the Academy in relation to quality is to work with HEIs on quality enhancement, working in close cooperation with others, notably the Quality Assurance Agency. The importance of this role was increased in 2005 when the review by the Quality Assurance Framework Group concluded that "a stronger enhancement aspect to institutional audit will deliver increased benefits to students and to institutions". A recent report, Quality Enhancement and Assurance, A changing picture, published jointly by QAA and the Academy updates recent developments. [6]

  4.4  The Academy's work has addressed issues in a number of related areas. Of particular interest are:

4.4 (1) National Student Survey. The National Student Survey, which is run by HEFCE, is a vital tool for assessing students' perceptions of the quality of their experiences. The Academy's main role is to help HEIs use the NSS and its outcomes most effectively to improve the student learning experience. Our view is that this scope to influence institutional practice is the most valuable purpose of the NSS. The Academy's main activities have included intensive work with a small number of HEIs, leading to a collection of case studies and articulation of many key issues for HEIs, and publication of reports to support and inform the use of NSS data, available on the Academy website, [7] including:

    — exploring assessment and feedback issues identified by the NSS

    — an assessment of the 2007 NSS optional items

    — a guide on how to use multi-level modelling to interpret NSS data

    — case studies of activities undertaken by institutions informed by NSS data

    — a comparative review of national surveys of undergraduate students

    — an exploratory evaluation of how institutions are using NSS data.

  4.4 (2) postgraduate programmes. The Higher Education Academy's 2007 and 2008 surveys of the experiences of students on both postgraduate research and postgraduate taught programmes involved a total of 73 HEIs wishing to build a better understanding of this area. We believe that a similar survey to the NSS covering postgraduate students would provide a catalyst for further improvement in this area.

  4.5  The Higher Education Academy endorses the report from our Chief Executive to the Secretary of State, which makes a number of recommendations for incremental change. In particular he suggests:

    — Accelerating the current movement towards enhancement-led quality assurance

    — Strengthening "causes for complaint" procedures

    — Reviewing quality assurance arrangements for postgraduate taught programmes, including information for prospective students about quality which parallels that provided for undergraduates and monitoring of international students' experiences (including data from a new NSS for postgraduate taught programmes)

    — Ensuring that public perceptions of quality are not compromised by greater emphasis on an employer engagement/work-based learning agenda

    — Developing published measures of institutional commitment to teaching and the student experience.

    — Reviewing institutional policies and procedures for the recruitment and assessment of international students

    — Ensuring that learning hours and contact hours are decided upon as part of a rational system linked to an explicit evidence base

    — Proactive emphasis on diversity as a contributing factor to excellence and more vigorous critique of one-dimensional models of quality (as evidenced in most league tables)

    — A systematic review of institutional systems for collecting and using student feedback and peer observation of teaching

    — Considering the need for new systems to ensure comparability of standards, not only within subjects but also across them and coordination by DIUS of a systematic debate about what constitutes excellence in student performance across the disciplines.

    — Review of the external examiner system

  4.6  There has been much media discussion, not all of it very well-informed, on contact hours. The Academy's view is that the commentary misses the key issue, which is that it is primarily the quality not quantity of input—from both academics and students—that affects the student experience. The number of contact hours is a crude proxy for a high quality student experience, which depends on a number of factors.

  4.7  Plagiarism has attracted much media attention. Although not a new issue in higher education, student plagiarism is seen to be an increasing problem in the UK and beyond. All 24 subject centres of the Higher Education Academy Network provide information to their constituents on the topic of plagiarism.

  4.8  The Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee are partners in the Academic Integrity Service which seeks to tackle plagiarism. This service is running the Academic Misconduct Benchmarking Research Project (AMBeR) . This aims to identify the range and nature of penalties applicable to cases of student plagiarism in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEI). The project involves a three-stage study of the regulatory and practical aspects of dealing with student plagiarism. [8]

  4.9 In developing work on assessment it is important to take account of the specific needs of students and academics engaged in work-based learning.


  5.1  While universities and colleges are taking increasing notice of the "student voice", and the government has programmes such as the National Student Forum, the experience of the Higher Education Academy is that there is some way to go. We are concerned to ensure that the idea of students as "customers" does not take hold as this misses opportunities to develop the student experience as an active partnership between students and those who teach and support student learning.

5.2  Our Chief Executive's report to the Secretary of State sets out a vision of higher education as a "joint venture" between students and providers of higher education. We believe that the concept of student engagement must be further developed at all levels in universities and colleges.

  5.3  The Academy's own work includes supporting student networks including in England the CETL student network. We involve students in our governance structures and work in partnership with the NUS and others.

5.4 The Academy's research into the experiences of first year students, [9] found that the likelihood of withdrawal was considerably affected by two key factors: students' prior knowledge of their institution and their course, and how stimulating they felt their teaching to be. We have commented elsewhere in this submission on the importance of preparing students properly for higher education, and on the importance of excellent teaching.

  5.5  There appears to be a growing consensus that the model of higher education as a "joint venture" between students and institutions will produce the best outcomes for students and for the economy. The challenge for governments and for agencies is to make available funding models and quality systems that support this vision.

December 2008

REFERENCES[1]  The Future of Higher Education: Teaching and the Student Experience. Professor Paul Ramsden. Paper submitted to the Secretary of State Higher Education debate.

[2]  Higher Education Academy news story, Subject Centres help ease students' transition into higher education. Web resource.

[3]  The UK Professional Standards Framework

[4]  Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2008. Malgorzata Kulej and Chris Park

[5]  Beyond the Honours degree classification: the Burgess Group final report, available from Universities UK

[6]  Quality enhancement and assurance: a changing picture. Higher Education Academy, Quality Assurance Agency and Hefce.

[7]  Higher Education Academy National Student Survey web pages.

[8]  Academic Misconduct Benchmarking Research Project web site

[9]  The first year experience of higher education in the UK. Professor Mantz Yorke and Professor Bernard Longden.

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