Chairing the Teaching Excellence Framework panel means that I have done a good deal of thinking this year about teaching and learning in universities. I’ve had to work through quantitative and qualitative data on teaching in almost all the nation’s universities and the further education colleges offering higher education provision. It has been a fabulous privilege and I’ve learnt a lot. Unfortunately, for now, the calling of the General Election has imposed a slight delay on my ability to talk about any of it: the publication of the TEF results has been deemed to be potentially sensitive for the election and the announcement of TEF outcomes has thus been postponed until just after the election.
But there are some obvious things to be said about teaching in universities which are neither TEF- nor election-sensitive. Teaching is the lifeblood of universities. Whatever their mission, their demography, their disciplinary focus, it’s pretty obvious that without students, without teaching, they would not be universities. In a couple of weeks’ time, we shall be announcing – something else which is not election-sensitive – the winners of the 2017 Hallam Inspirational Teaching Awards. They have now been running for a number of years, and, as I’ve said before, one of the pleasures of arriving at work every morning at City Campus, or arriving in Heart of the Campus at Collegiate, is the sight of the huge posters of the winners which adorn the walls for the entire academic year. They are a constant reminder of the importance of teaching in the University’s mission, and the importance of inspirational teaching to students. Teaching is one of the most important means through which we realize our mission.
But – and this is something I have been puzzling about through the entire TEF exercise – the really interesting question is to work out how universities can shape the quality of teaching and the quality of student experience. There are any number of ways in which universities set out to assure the quality of their provision – the external examiner system, course reviews, improvement plans. The challenge in a large and complex institution is to make these structures knit together, so that there is a golden thread of quality and challenge at the core of the University. Our new University Strategy quite deliberately casts this in an ambitious way. Our teaching is one of the ways in which we shape students futures, alongside the things in which high quality student experience is embedded – library and learning resources, careers and employability support, welfare and mental health services. Under Professor Christina Hughes, who as PVC for Student Experience leads our work in this critical area, the Shaping Futures Board is the main vehicle for drawing together our thinking and development about how we can be sure that we are, routinely, offering students the very best. The Strategy, and the Shaping Futures Board, commits us to establishing a new professional learning entity to lead work on teaching at the University. The ‘Hallam Guild’ will be the main vehicle for the development of teaching across the University, and detailed work on scoping it out is underway.
The express purpose of the Teaching Excellence Framework is to raise the profile of and intensify the focus on teaching in universities. There is a strong sense – and, indeed, has been for some time in policy-circles – that the REF and the emergence of research-led international league tables have shifted the focus of universities away from teaching. In one sense, this is unfair: there has been huge enthusiasm and engagement with the development of teaching across the university system over the last two decades. But perception is often more powerful than substance. Teaching is at the core of what universities do. It is central to their mission. Here, it is fundamental, and we are committed, through our Transforming Lives strategy, to embedding it at the core of all we do.