Academia at the heart of the (complex adaptive) system – the new teaching quality enhancement.

Sneaking out while you were on holiday comes a very nice report commissioned from the Higher Education Research and Evaluation team at Lancaster by the Higher Education Academy on behalf of HEFCE. Entitled “The role of HEFCE in teaching and learning enhancement: a review of evaluative evidence“, this report facilitates interviews based primarily on the post 2003 White Paper enhancement activities that you may recall from an earlier post.

The underpinning questions can neatly be summarised as “should our post-Funding Council have a role in Teaching Quality Enhancement? and if so what should it be?”. And this comes down to some lovely stuff on theories of change, linked to policy instruments and mechanisms:

  • Contagion from good examples – pilots/beacons (eg CETLs)
  • Technological determinism – bid-and-deliver (eg FDTL/TLTP)
  • Resource-driven (rewards and sanctions) – formula funding (eg TQEF)
  • Rhetorical support from institutions – strategy-driven formula funding (eg early TQEF/SPS)
  • Professional imperative – the “professionalism of teaching” narrative (eg UKPSF, maybe NTFS)
  • Market driven – consumer empowerment (eg NSS & links through to Quality Assurance)

(freely adapted from figures 3.3 and 3.4 of the report, as I disagree with a few of the mappings)

One of the key criticisms levelled at previous enhancement work is the lack of clarity or consistency around these models of change, and – perhaps more importantly, about the rationale for the choice of said model of change. But, as is also made clear – the sheer complexity both of the teaching system in English HE and the system that exists to drive the enhancement of it makes such clarity more of a goal than an expectation.

“It is always tempting to make decisions based on a technical-rational understanding of change processes. However,  we know that micro-political and macro-political processes as well as the robust defence of turf, careers, reputations and position mean that change is more often a process of ‘muddling through’ in a loosely-coupled way than a rational process of successive goal setting and achievement. It is clear that the situation depicted by complex-adaptive systems theory is closer to the reality of higher education in England than the picture painted by more rationalistic theories.” (pp26-27)

For me (as I think I have mentioned on a few previous occasions) the Von Hippel model of user-driven innovation neatly cuts through a lot of this as it supports systemic actors in hacking and optimising the reality of the system they perceive. On the ground this would look something like the late, lamented Jisc LTIG system of selective small to medium scale investments in interesting practice developments that could be scaled up and shared.

Of course, the difficulty is always in scaling up and sharing, as institutional differences mitigate against a lot of the easier gains from sharing practice. The trick that has always been missed is feeding back the wider picture of the issues individuals and teams are struggling with in order to support and evidence institutional adaptations (and indeed systemic adaptations, but at a point of mission divergence these are perhaps less likely). It is possible, even likely, that institutional adaptations would draw on project experience, but this would not be essential.

An explicitly iterative, user- (not “student”, as students are not the users of systems that are constraining learning, they see a second-order detriment) focused intervention like this meets the report’s slightly pessimistic point that “building on the best of the past while attempting to rectify anomalies and deleterious practices is a strategy that
has more chance of success than imposing completely new models.“. It’s a strong punt on “bottom-up” rather than “top-down”, if you like. Or “bottom-up” driving “top-down”.

The elephant in the room, is, of course, academic (and support) staff terms and conditions. Permanent austerity leaves staff attempting to do more (teaching, admin, outreach) with less (time, money, security, trust) – even in a time of relative institutional wealth. Fundamentally the most useful investment in the student experience any institution can make is an investment in happy, secure and trusted academic and support staff – who are then free to meet student needs in intelligent and individualised ways.

Many of the old faithful models of change are built upon a presupposition of academic institutions that are made up of reasonably permanent academics, who have both the time and the space to try new stuff. With an increasingly casualised and temporary workforce, coupled with a teaching funding model that seems to primarily exist to remove any sense of continuity or security, and multiplied by an empty-headed insistence on measuring all of the things (because “continuous improvement” against defined targets like it was the 50s and Taylorism was a thing.)

A Von Hippel-informed intervention based around individual actors within this system would likely develop a number of unexpected work-arounds that pose awkward questions. Why does the semi-automated workload management system suck so hard? Why do room allocation and IT support work against each other? Why do people have to put certain things on BlackBoard but not others? Why don’t module approval processes reflect the reality of module development processes? And so on.

Enhancing teaching may be as simple as allowing people the space and time to teach, and offering invesment in individuals and teams who go beyond that. There’s no big reveal to that, no “Christmas Tree” of shiny fascinators. But it may just work.

So let’s look at the postulated “critical success factors” in the report:

  • has efficient and effective ways of establishing need and of measuring the real costs (including ‘hidden’ costs) and effects of interventions;

My model produces evidence of need as a part of the investment process. And “real costs” are neatly controlled.

  • once established, priorities are addressed consistently, with clear leadership, over extended periods of time and with consistent attention paid to long-term sustainability;

I’d honestly argue that this was a little bit top-down. Other than an emphasis on empowering staff who teach as change agents and experimenters. But clearly some degree of attention made to setting principles (not priorities) and sticking to them would be welcome.

  • makes best use of the particular specialisms and missions of the different bodies focused on enhancement by encouraging a ‘joined-up’ enhancement strategy;

Enhancement is a crowded space, and as I work in one of the bodies that spend time in this space I will say nothing other than: don’t forget about SEDA.

  • is inclusive of the student voice and collective student interests;

This is a tricky one as collective student interests may not mesh with the “student voice” as caricatured in much public policy making. As the report notes (p11) “[…] the actual voices of students were missing in many policies and initiatives, that when students’ interests were discussed in them it was often on the basis of attribution rather than evidentially. This is of course true too of many government pronouncements: for example the white paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (2011) deployed a model of student needs and
interests, not the voices of actual students or their representatives.”

Basically we are fooling ourselves if we decide what student needs are based on a blunt survey instrument like the NSS (& lest we forget, 85% of students are satisfied with their overall experience, which is hardly a mandate for radicalism).

  • has adequate planning times and planning processes which made provision for engagement across the sector, based on a robust causal theory of change and mindful of usability characteristics;

This feels like the reverberations of a much older critique of enhancement activity around bidding processes. The wheel of fashion currently points away from such processes, but when things inevitably drift back that way it is clear that some kind of overall plan and change concept would be needed, ideally one that learnt from the worst excesses of the past whilst keeping the good stuff.

  • is nuanced enough to take account of different institutional missions and contexts in doing that;

Now this is where my Von Hippel suggestion has legs – some of the criticism levelled (fairly I feel) at previous programmes around enhancement is that they are based around a policy maker’s assumption that will (at best) hold true in a minority of institutions. Sector mission  differences are only going to increase unless Red Ed turns out to be a lot more red than I give him credit for. [though I say that, the last person to nationalise Higher Education in any meaningful way was Mrs Thatcher)

  • is effective in converting politicians’ sometimes unrealistic visions into realistic proposals. Is effective too in mitigating the effects of politicians’ predilection for big, high-profile, expensive projects involving ‘tape-cutting’ media events by reshaping them into effective innovations;

The “no more CETLs” clause. (although there was never a ministerial launch for the £315m CETLs programme). The quest for things to announce has been less of a draw in austerity Britain, with ministers preferring to announce cuts.

  • is able to effect changes beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to those deep in the heart of day-to-day teaching and learning, effecting a culture change across the system which incorporated a genuine commitment to evaluate practices, to address deficiencies and to build on successes.

Again, my Von Hippel model would work nicely here given a proper press launch. Surely a great cultural change would be for academics to start trying to do useful things, having the space and encouragement to do so.

Of course, we’d have to sort out teaching funding to do that properly…

HEFCE’s response is considered and offers what they feel are the key points of learning, all of which I can agree with to a certain extent:

  • A more strategic approach. (though I’d say that this needs to be strategic in the sense of considered and committed, rather than specifying specific changes at the outset)
  • Proper evaluation, and coherent planning based on this evidence.
  • Multi-agency (and multi-level) approaches. (here I note the need for serious programme-management firepower as these can be complex to implement)

[Postscript: if all this stuff sounds like your idea of fun HEFCE are looking for someone to make sense of the entire enhancement space, with a side-order of sorting out teaching funding more generally.]


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