Deja vue

Fiona's Blog

The teaching excellence framework seems familiar to those working in healthcare education, writes our director of research, Professor Fiona Ross CBE.

That the government should assume teaching is not “at the heart of the system” and needs a good shake up is both challenging and combative. But its response—a teaching excellence framework—is not entirely new. A very similar system has been in place in healthcare programmes for almost a decade, although it was designed to improve employer rather than student choice. Subjecting all university programmes to the kind of performance management already seen in healthcare both feels like deja vue and offers an opportunity to share some lessons.

It was Margaret Thatcher’s ideology of the internal market that led to the purchaser-provider split in healthcare education in the late 1980s. At the same time there was a mass move of large contracts for nursing and midwifery into higher education. Universities became, in the language of that government, “providers” of healthcare education for nurses, midwives and allied health professions and subject to performance assessment. Although the health portfolio can be a large business and strong income stream for universities, this performance management is often hidden from view. It it tends to be managed in-house by faculties and separately from the rest of the academic portfolio. But perhaps it won’t be invisible for much longer. And it offers useful insights as universities prepare their responses to the consultation on the teaching excellence framework.

The Quality Contract Performance Management System was introduced in London in 2007 and later aligned to the Health Education England national education outcomes framework. The focus of the “contract performance” was about value for the NHS investment in universities and to ensure newly qualified professionals were “fit for purpose”. The system measures outcomes across domains that have evolved since its inception, which include recruitment and widening participation, research and practice innovation, placement learning, student satisfaction, progression, attrition, pass rates and employment. Universities return quantitative data quarterly, which is enhanced with qualitative evidence—for example to support claims in applied research and innovative education. Red/amber/green ratings are applied to the contract performance indicators and annual reports are produced for each profession, which are published externally as league tables. Financial penalties are applied for attrition and performance influences annual commissioning decisions about growth or disinvestment in student numbers. The metrics have been used as benchmarking data in the process of competitive tenders that have led to provider market exits. There are such powerful parallels with the proposed teaching excellence framework that I almost wonder if civil servants do talk to each other across government.

From managing one of these teaching excellence framework lookalikes, I have learned that it is overwhelmingly and disproportionately resource intensive. Although there was no new money, my organisation decided to prioritise a strategic leadership role to oversee the process and invest in building data-analytical capacity within the faculty. Managing the data is crucial; having a devolved system of data handling and reporting paid dividends and ensured there was ownership and understanding by module leaders right the way up to heads of school. Attention to detail is also crucial. On many occasions the eagle eyes of our data analysts spotted mistakes made by the commissioners that could have made a significant difference in the institutional rating.

Leadership is vital to avoid the organisation becoming preoccupied with feeding a data-hungry system on an industrial scale without seeing the broader opportunity to build a system that improves quality. Data can be used to identify priorities, support organisational change and make improvements to teaching and learning. For example, we introduced values-based recruitment, to ensure we were selecting students who were motivated by the right things, and initiated a system of facilitated peer-led learning in small groups to encourage early interventions when students showed signs of struggling.

Yet there are differences between the healthcare and teaching systems. The first is that the teaching excellence framework narrative is about incentivising good teaching to benefit students and enable choice; universities that achieve excellence will be able to charge higher fees, whereas the NHS has a fixed price for students and penalties imposed on universities for poor outcomes. The narrative around the teaching excellence framework focuses more on excellence and sharing, whereas in the NHS it is on identifying the bad and rooting it out. Messages around the teaching excellence framework emphasise the need to ensure teaching has parity with research, whereas health commissioners have traditionally been ambivalent as to the value ascribed to research in teaching. The plan is for assessment of teaching to be done largely by peer review and to produce better information for students, whereas the NHS system is a top down inspection regime to provide metrics for employers to make commissioning decisions.

Everyone wants to see students getting the best education and that means good teaching, informed by cutting edge research and scholarship. The big risk of the teaching excellence framework is that it will end up being a burden, measure what is easy to count and fail to capture the hallmarks of quality, such as reflective and critical thinking. However, as long as leaders argue the case for balance and proportionality, these kind of metrics do have a place. My experience from healthcare is they can indeed be valuable in driving good practice and improving the student experience.

Professor Fiona Ross CBE is director of research at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and formerly executive dean of the faculty of health, social care and education, run as a partnership by Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.

This article was originally published in Research Fortnightly. To find out more click here.

Taking a longer view: the reflective practices of higher education leaders

Dr Neil Raven wrote an intriguing article in our 2011 summer edition of Engage on the role that reflective diaries can play in leadership development. After 5 years of exploring this concept, Dr Raven shares with us further insights into the reflective practices of higher education leaders.

Neil Master

The insights for the study I discussed in the Engage were drawn from first-hand experience. However, I was also keen to learn about the reflective approaches adopted by others. While there is a growing recognition of the value of reflection in professional development, there have been few empirical studies in this field.  Yet, such research has the potential to afford insights into practices that could have wider application. To discover more, in-depth interviews were conducted with nine leaders from a variety of higher education institutions and supporting agencies who were engaged in some form of reflective practice. These revealed the practitioners to be using one of three broad methods of reflection.

The first method involved holding ‘reflective conversations’. In each case, certain individuals were approached with the aim of ‘engaging them’ in a conversation.  These individuals were selected because they were considered capable of providing ‘the best response’ to a particular issue, as well as being judged ‘trustworthy’. In addition, reflective conversations tended to be ‘iterative’ in nature, with ‘further feedback’ sought on subsequent occasions. The reciprocity of this arrangement was also discussed. The interviewees would take their turn to provide feedback on subjects broached by colleagues.

The second reflective method made use of notebooks. These were preferred to computer-based word packages because of their portability, and the immediacy with which ideas and thoughts could be captured without the delay of having to switch on a machine and enter a password. In addition, entries were structured. Initial descriptions were followed by ‘some form of interpretation’, or attempt to comprehend and analyse an experience. Moreover, entries would be returned to, reviewed and, on occasions, added to.

Files or folders formed the basis of the third approach. These acted as repositories for reflective thoughts that were initially scribbled down on pieces of paper. Generally, a number of folders were kept, with each dedicated to a specific theme or project. Folders would also be revisited and, in some instances, their subject matter reclassified in the light of new insights.

These variations are best explained by Cooper and Stevens (2006), who talk of practices being honed to meet the needs and circumstances of the individual. This interpretation is underpinned by the detailed findings from the interviews. These revealed differences amongst those adopting the same broad approach, including in ‘the number of phases and intricacy of the processes involved’.

Yet, although methods and approaches may have differed, the nine interviewees were certain of the benefits to derive from reflective practice.  The process helped to nurture a sense of confidence in their ability to manage and lead.  Although time had to be set aside to engage in reflective practice, all were convinced of the ‘net gains’, with the process providing a chance to critically assess ideas, make connections and to ‘take a longer view’. A more detailed account of this study can be found in Reflective Practice. If you are interested in the details of this study, or wish to explore the application of these findings, please contact me.

Dr Neil Raven’s specialism is in research and evaluation services in the areas of outreach and widening access, lifelong learning, and post-compulsory education.

More information 

  • Reflective practice is part of the post-programme activities for gaining an LF Fellows award, the post programme development that turns the experience of a LF programme into tangible evidence of effective learning and continue to receive the nurture and inspiration that leaders need. For more on LF Fellowships, please click here.

Developing diversity at the University of Birmingham

Odd One Out

In our last blog post we highlighted new research showing that black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) academics remain under-represented at senior levels in higher education – there are only 20 UK-born black and ethnic minority deputy or pro-vice-chancellors, compared with 530 white ones – and introduced our new Diversifying Academic Leadership Programme.

We’re also supporting an exciting Small Development Project at the University of Birmingham, the Aditi Leadership Programme, that will provide leadership development interventions with the aim of unlocking the potential of aspiring BAME leaders.

The University of Birmingham employs 1,013 staff (16%) from BAME backgrounds, substantially above the sector average of 10.3%. However, this is under representative of the BAME population in Birmingham and there is a clear trend of BAME staff representation decreasing as seniority increases.

Research and focus groups at the university revealed the need for tailored leadership programmes to develop aspiring BAME leaders. The programme that has been planned as a result will equip BAME staff for future leadership roles, providing them with a network and more visible profile in the university. It will also enable the university and the community to share skills and resources, and create future career pathways by demonstrating how the full range of diverse leadership talents can flourish. The project will identify and address any institutional factors that might impede the unlocking of leadership potential in BAME colleagues, which is of tangible benefit to other higher education institutions.

The programme will be blended, encompassing workshops, action learning sets, coaching, mentoring, online and other technological support, project work and secondments.

Each participant will compile a leadership portfolio, demonstrating a deep understanding of their unique talents and how they will use them. The programme will be outward facing and will engage with the local community through initiatives such as mentoring.

The programme has been tested in focus groups and the pilot programme (with 10 BAME staff) is due to conclude in March 2016, with a full roll out next summer.

If you would like to submit your application for our Small Development Projects, please click here. The deadline for applications is Tuesday 5 January 2016. 

The Birmingham cohort of the Diversifying Academic Leadership Programme is fully booked. There are spaces available on our London and Manchester cohorts. To find out more and book, click here.

Could UK Academy be doing more to ensure more BME academics progress to senior levels?

DAL_web banner 470x140_4WEB

Why do BME academics remain under-represented at senior levels in HE? That’s one of the questions recently posed by the Time Higher Education (5-11 November 2015). “Despite an increasing number of black and ethnicity staff working in universities, there is a ‘marked lack of diversity at senior levels; lower than average salaries for black academics,” reports John Gill having reviewed the latest datasets from the Equality Challenge Unit. Indeed, Equality Data in Higher Education, published by ECU earlier this month, makes for uncomfortable reading.

It highlights that there are only 20 UK born black and ethnic minority Deputy or Pro Vice-Chancellors, compared with 530 white ones. So what is stopping BME staff from progressing into senior roles – and where should the focus be placed?

In June 2015, the Leadership Foundation, working with the Equality Challenge Unit, held a BME Leadership in HE Summit to explore the findings of a report we’d commissioned, The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality. In it the author, Dr Kalwant Bhopal, Reader in Education, University of Southampton, said ‘there have been some significant advances in achieving race equality in higher education in the UK since the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, but despite such advances, there is still evidence to suggest that inequalities for staff in higher education persist.’

Bhopal’s paper also set out six practical policy recommendations that senior leaders should consider. They included:

  • Greater thought needs to be given to the possibility of unconscious bias during recruitment and promotion processes
  • Institutions should examine the types of support they offer to colleagues who are considering promotion to senior managerial and academic roles
  • Clear and concise monitoring is needed in selection and recruitment processes

Organisational culture, unconscious and conscious bias, recruitment processes were amongst the list of reasons cited by summit delegates as barriers to progression – all of which resonated with our stimulus paper findings.

It is clear that many shifts need to happen – but there are signs that steps are being taken.  The RACE Equality Charter Mark, which has completed its pilot, aims to get universities to review their promotion processes, consider what they are doing to do to encourage people to apply and how individuals are supported through the process.

However, could more be done to encourage and prepare BME academics to apply for senior roles? This is where the Leadership Foundation’s new Diversifying Academic Leadership Programme seeks to make a contribution.

Designed by Janette Morgan, Associate, Leadership Foundation and Sisonke Partnership, the programme aims to help BME staff accomplish their leadership ambitions and progress their career. Diversifying Academic Leadership, which starts in January 2016, will enable participants to explore leadership concepts, develop their leadership style and provide a space to discuss issues relating to their experience of working in universities.

The first cohort of Diversifying Academic Leadership Programme is fully booked. However there are still places available for the second cohort taking place in Manchester and the third cohort taking place in Birmingham. For more information, visit

Download a copy of The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality.

How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?

woman conducting orchestra 

With the publication of a new report (Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes) on how universities manage the strategic development of the academic portfolio, Paul Coyle, i-MAP Director, considers some of the associated leadership and governance challenges.

What is i-MAP?

i-MAP stands for Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes. The i-MAP Project, first published in 2012, considered how universities develop their academic portfolio of taught undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Specifically it investigated whether universities might increase the number of new programmes that recruit a viable first cohort of students by adopting a more market-led approach. The i-MAP Study, conducted in 2014/15, is a follow-up to the original Project. The Study re-examined new programme development and also considered how universities mange the closure of academic provision.

How can leaders support portfolio development?

One of the main recommendations made by the Project was that new programme development should be a collaborative process, which enables the contributions of a variety of staff including academics and staff from finance, marketing, planning, quality, and student recruitment. Such a team-based approach can be successfully facilitated by a senior leader, at Pro Vice-Chancellor level or above, who can co-ordinate the work of the academics and professional support staff.

Those university leaders charged with managing this activity need to be skilled at facilitating shared decision-making, whilst also ensuring that difficult issues are faced and resolved.

Where are the challenges?

In 2014, the follow up Study found that universities were still reporting that a significant number of new programmes were failing to recruit a viable first cohort of students. Universities should note that the original Project recommendations remain valid, especially in a more competitive environment. The Study also found that there are significant challenges associated with the closure of programmes, particularly deciding how to deal with “the walking dead” i.e. programmes that had been suffering from on-going poor recruitment for many years.

Might there be an enhanced role for the Governing Body?

The Study found increasing interest from Governing Bodies in academic portfolio management and the connections to financial sustainability. Whilst members of Governing Bodies are unlikely to be involved in decisions about individual programmes, they might provide support for those universities who identified a need for better integration of academic and financial planning. The recently updated HE Code of Governance, published by the Committee of University Chairs, offers useful guidance, although ultimately, the role of the Governing Body is a matter for individual HEIs.

What next?

Both the report of the Project and the report of the Study are available for download. i-MAP consultancy services designed to support universities to implement the i-MAP recommendations are available, with the support of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. A network of interested individuals and organisations, who have participated in the Project and/or the Study, will continue discussions, share relevant information and case studies. New participants are welcome. Further information can be found at

Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes was launched at the Securing Student Recruitment by Managing the Academic Portfolio conference, today (30 September) and the Leadership Foundation chief executive Alison Johns opened the event. The study will be available on Thursday 1 October 2015 at

Paul Coyle is a leadership, innovation and change management consultant supporting the development of universities in Europe and the UK. He can be contacted at

Tackling the gender gap – a champion’s tale

wordle FINALLynne Howlett, Aurora champion at Newcastle University, reflects on how Aurora has impacted her institution, from the women who took part to changes at the very top. Here’s her story.

Newcastle University’s engagement with Aurora has grown slowly and carefully over the last three years. When it was launched in 2013 we were already facilitating a range of development initiatives and networks specifically for women and had to be sure that Aurora would add to, rather than detract from our own efforts.

Subsequent feedback from Aurora participants has been resoundingly positive. Our Aurora role models and mentors have enjoyed and seen personal benefits, and so our commitment has grown in response. 2016 will see our 12th participant, our 12th mentor and our 9th role model taking part in the programme. The numbers are not large but all have been carefully selected, briefed and mentored. It was essential for us to do this well if we were to maximise the benefits for our aspiring women.

As the Aurora champion I have personally enjoyed meeting and briefing our participants. I have heard about their challenges, their barriers and aspirations and have been able to set them all up with some excellent mentors. My post-Aurora programme evaluation meetings have often been inspiring and revealed stories of increased confidence, seeing things from different perspectives, greater levels of determination, actual promotions and even a personal request for a pay rise!

Our role models have hosted tables at programme days and helped able women to think beyond their own horizons, find their voice and question their assumptions. They have encouraged them to “step up to the plate”.

As an Aurora mentor myself, I particularly enjoyed working with an excellent Aurora participant. She felt stuck career-wise and has subsequently been promoted to a more senior university-level role where she works on a key strategic priority that will have lasting cultural and financial impact on the institution. She is now highly motivated and has achieved her career goals.

At year 3 we are starting to see a critical mass of Aurorans who are keen to continue to promote the “women’s career agenda theme” here at Newcastle. Currently they are thinking about running an annual conference (using some of the Aurora methodologies), continuing with action learning sets and are setting about writing an Aurora feedback report with recommendations for our Executive Board and Diversity Committee.

Another real measure of commitment came when we saw the original Aurora participants becoming Aurora role models or undertaking training so that they could step into the Aurora mentor role with skill and confidence. They clearly want to continue to be engaged with the initiative and be part of its growing impact.

At university-level we are finding that having started by funding a very small number of Aurora places centrally, our faculties are now funding and mentoring participants locally in support of their Athena Swan commitments.

At a more senior level, and as part of our leadership talent and succession efforts, we are monitoring and reporting on the gender balance of our leadership appointments. We are offering coaching for aspiring women and to those who move into more strategic roles. Our university has also recently joined the national 30% Club which pledges us to strive to have 30% of our senior appointments female, with the aim of more gender-balanced committees and boards working even more effectively together for the future.

Lynne Howlett is the Leadership and Management Development Manager at Newcastle University

To find out more about Aurora please visit

Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem

Author: Dr. Andrew Tuson MAUA,
Study Tour Coordinator, Consultant and Interim Manager,
Association of University Administrators

The Association of University Administrators conducts Study Tours annually to investigate an overseas higher education system. A report is written of the team’s findings. We are grateful to the Leadership Foundation for their support of the forthcoming report.

This year, the Study Tour was in Poland and like previous tours it had the following objectives:

  • To undertake a fact finding mission and produce a report on the Polish higher education system which incorporates analysis of similarities and differences and considers ways of sharing best practise;
  • To enable participants to gain an international perspective on aspects of higher education decision making, policy and practise;
  • To allow tour participants the opportunity to challenge their existing notions about higher education and undertake research in a non-UK environment.

Poland is a hidden gem in Europe, with more history, science and culture to offer than is commonly realised. For example, Polish mathematicians originally broke the Enigma cipher, work that shortened the war and saved countless lives. (Bletchley Park extended their work to later versions of the cipher and made it work on an industrial scale).

Initial desk research revealed a number of interesting and distinctive features of Polish higher education. For example. Polish higher education has a large recent private higher education sector that has played an important role in widening participation. Poland’s system has also undergone vast change in recent years. The system has played a key role in supporting Poland’s transition towards democracy, entry to the European Union and alignment with the Bologna Process. As such the focus was on three overarching themes:

  • Quality assurance;
  • Student demand, including internationalisation and the rise of the Private Sector;
  • Governance, including the student voice.

Three cities were the focus during our visit on the 10-17 May 2015: Warsaw, Poznan and Krakow. We visited between a number of public (Warsaw University of Technology, Adam Mickelwicz University and the Jageillonian University) as well as private providers (TEB/WSB, Vistula, Collegium Da Vinci and Kozminski). We were also received by the Polish higher education ministry and the PKA (the Polish Accreditation Committee).

The report will likely be published by November, but for now here are some initial impressions.

  • There is a clear and pressing issue of demographics in the sector. Since 2006 the student population has declined from about 2 million to just under 1.5 million. The situation will bottom out in 2025.
  • The Polish QA body, the PKA, runs about 1000 reviews a year. Unlike the UK, external examiners are not used by HEIs; rather external academics look at samples of work as part of the PKA review process.
  • Internationalisation is a recent consideration (there are only about 45,000 non-Polish students in the system), and the drivers appear to be not as commercial as would be the case in the publically funded UK HEIs. There are a lot of students from the Former Soviet Union in Polish universities (Ukraine and Belarus account for half of their non-Polish students).
  • The democratisation of public university governance with key officers (e.g. Rector) being elected; in the communist era the post-holders were appointed. Students are required to be represented in key governance committees including some that make financial decisions, by law. This applies in both private and public universities.

From a leadership perspective, it is remarkable how Polish higher education has responded to so much change. It had to expand rapidly, introduce and regulate a large private sector and upgrade its infrastructure. How Poland builds its capacity to respond to future challenges will be of interest going forward.

For more information on the team and where we visited. Please read our tour blog which can be found at

Our next Study Tour will take place in the Netherlands on Tuesday 10 – Friday 13 November 2015. To find our more please visit AUA’s website