As the national body for learning and teaching in higher education, the HEA is at the heart of the debate about teaching excellence and how it can be assessed. With the deadline approaching for responses to the Government’s Green Paper - and with the metrics consultation on the TEF imminent - the HEA is inviting key figures in the sector to give their views on different aspects of the proposed Framework.
We start with Dianne Willcocks, Emeritus Professor at York St John University and co-assessor for the HEA’s Vice-Chancellors’ Strategic Excellence Initiative (VCSEI).
Constructing an HE Award that COUNTS
At a moment when the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and associated metrics might appear to be yet another perilous prospect for the sector to contend with in 2016, it could be opportune to reflect on lessons learned and battles successfully engaged in previous scrutiny encounters... with which the past is littered, occasionally to warm acclaim; sometimes to rueful regret; and more often to denial and denigration. One such which attracted a positive audience is the recent, HEA sponsored, Vice-Chancellors’ Strategic Excellence Initiative (VCSEI) – not a name that trips off the tongue readily but one that does do exactly what it says on the tin! So what do we know and what might we take forward from this particular schema which broadly found favour with its customer base?
The VCSEI is voluntary not mandatory; it is designed purposefully to engage that shy and oft-times elusive beast in the teaching and learning landscape, the VC; it tackles this eminent leader and builds on her/his preferred territory (typically well-established) of strategy and excellence; and it respects fully university diversity and distinctiveness as key elements in significant successful outcomes both for the individual HEI and, most importantly, for the sector’s future development of teaching enhancement. At its first ‘outing’ this realistically pitched prize (in terms of value and availability of awards) attracted submissions from approximately one third of the sector: a total of 25 awards (further to 86 applications) was made.
Key characteristics of VCSEI which contributed to its effectiveness are signalled by the award title itself. Securing the VC imprimatur required individual HEIs to position their application at a strategic level, commensurate with vision and values, and working with a shared whole-institution agenda unique to the strengths and pride of their own particular academic body and the communities served. It permitted and encouraged difference and innovation which sustained institutional integrity. The schema, moreover, assumed HEIs to be fostering already a level of quality and excellence from which enhancement might be further developed – and from which the wider sector might benefit. These assumptions and the proposition itself were tested through a basket of qualitative and quantitative measures that have become familiar and widely accepted. And whilst badged as an “initiative” VCSEI (and its HEA designers!) sought assiduously to avoid a sense of initiative fatigue by enabling proposals to be drawn from pre-existing local strategic frameworks and future goals that did not discriminate by size, history, geography, mission group or other distinguishing features which all play a role in the richness and diversity of UKHE.
Accordingly, those in the business of signing off metrics for the next level of scrutiny might ponder on these messages regarding how best to engage and how best to reward what really counts for academic staff, for students and for the wider community.
Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the HEA.