The 2003 White Paper on teaching, revisited.

For a fair number of years the 2003 DfES White Paper (“The Future of Higher Education”) was my life, to the extent that I could quote paragraph numbers. I’ve just had reason to dive back in to check a reference, and I got to looking at the key recommendations on teaching (chapter 4). Can the impact of the recommendations still be seen eleven years on?

■ We are rebalancing funding so that new resources come into the sector not only through research and student numbers, but through strength in teaching.

This was a general aspiration (that underpinned the rest of the chapter to a greater or lesser extent) rather than a specific policy.

■ Student choice will increasingly work to drive up quality, supported by much better information. A comprehensive survey of student views, as well as published external examiners reports and other information about teaching standards, will be pulled together in an easy-to-use Guide to Universities, overseen by the National Union of Students.

The National Student Survey, of course! This has just been reviewed by HEFCE – and the review notes a number of practical and methodological issues, including significant changes to questions.

“[Both] stakeholders and students thought the NSS had conceptual weaknesses concerning what it measured, and methodological weaknesses related to what it covered. In particular, they were concerned that the NSS’s scope was too narrow in terms of students’ experiences and their engagement in learning and teaching which undermined the NSS’s efficacy in informing student choice and enhancing students’ academic experience.”

The wider collection of materials has been supplanted by Unistats, having previously been TQI – neither of which was ever run by the National Union of Students. Opinion appears to be mixed on the value of the data displayed by the service, some of which may be down to underlying issues with JACS coding.

The Key Information Set (KIS) also sits within this space. As does much of the thrust of the Browne Review and the 2010 White Paper (“Students at the Heart of the System”).

But as a recent HEFCE review concluded, student choice is a bit more complicated than that.

■ To underpin reform, we will support improvements in teaching quality in all institutions. Additional money for pay will be conditional on higher education institutions having human resource strategies that explicitly value teaching and reward and promote good teachers.

The DfES (as was) asked HEFCE to ensure that institutions had a policy to reward high-quality teaching, and then gave them some extra non-ringfenced money. Some institutions did (and continue to) have good processes for teaching-related promotion. For others it was more around lip-service. The new model of funding higher education pretty much undoes this reform, as all funding now follows student choice.

■ New national professional standards for teaching in higher education will be established as the basis of accredited training for all staff, and all new teaching staff will receive accredited training by 2006.

There was an awesome multi-agency consultation, and then the then-new Higher Education Academy, took ownership of a set of professional standards on behalf of the sector (which initially looked the same as the old ILTHE standards. The UKPSF has been updated and continues to exist, the Academy accredits institutional courses based on it – and the indications are that it will continue to do so throughout the forthcoming reorganisations. However, the Academy is emphatically not a professional body, and has no wish to maintain lists of qualified HE teachers.

The standards never became compulsory (“a license to practice”), but most institutions now offer a PGCertHE to new staff, which leads to said staff member becoming a “Fellow” of the Academy. The University of Huddersfield is currently the only English university where all staff with substantive teaching roles are fellows, though data overall is not good enough to share with students.

■ The external examining system will be strengthened by improved training and induction, including a national programme for external examiners by 2004–05.

Both the QAA and the Academy have published advice and guidance on external examining, but I’m not aware of a national programme either currently or in the past. (There is an active JiscMail list, however)

■ We will also celebrate and reward teaching excellence. We are consulting on the establishment of a single national body – a teaching quality academy – which could be established by 2004 to develop and promote best practice in teaching.

And so it came to pass. The Academy was launched on Monday 18th October 2004 (from the LTSN, ILTHE and TQEF NCT – HESDA headed for the Leadership Foundation instead) and has worked hard to win the support and trust of the sector as an independent champion of teaching in higher education. It has faced a number of cuts in recent years, losing the much loved subject centre network and faces further cuts in the next few years.

■ Centres of Excellence in teaching will be established to reward good teaching at departmental level and to promote best practice, with each Centre getting £500,000 a year for five years, and the chance to bid for capital funding.

■ The National Teaching Fellowships Scheme will be increased in size to offer substantial rewards to twice as many outstanding teachers as at present.

The other components of the support for teaching quality were systems of national rewards. The National Teaching Fellows continue with another clutch of excellent teachers made Fellows this year, but  the £315m Centres for Excellence in Learning and Teaching have, with a small number of exceptions, largely disappeared.

The CETLs, on reflection, represented a particularly profound missed opportunity. They attempted both to be reward and beacon, a way of incentivising local excellence and sharing practice nationally. Years of hopes and dreams were pored into something that still had to maintain the constraints of the text in the paper. (Weeks were spent doing basic things like changing the name – from Centres OF Excellence to Centres for Excellence – and abandoning the “commended for excellence” consolation designation).

DfES originally hoped to expand this initiative as a counterweight to research funding, but even by the time of launch changing priorities made this look unlikely. Capital, in particular proved hard for HEFCE to allocate and there was a second allocation to existing centres.

■ To recognise excellent teaching as a university mission in its own right, University title will be made dependent on teaching degree awarding powers – from 2004–05 it will no longer be necessary to have research degree awarding powers to become a university.

At the time this seemed revolutionary, but given what David Willetts ended up doing this looks tame on reflection. A small number of former Colleges of HE became Universities as a result of this change, and one new institution – The University of Cumbria – was founded.

All of these interventions have had some positive influence on the sector, but none have profoundly changed the sector. Looking back, this was evolution rather than revolution in teaching at least. The main thrust of the contemporary debates around the paper concerned the imposition of “top-up fees”, themselves unwittingly laying the foundations of the Browne model of funding.

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  • Academia at the heart of the (complex adaptive) system – the new teaching quality enhancement. – FOLLOWERS OF THE APOCALYPSE

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