Professor Eunice Simmons, Deputy Vice-Chancellor - Academic & Student Affairs, Nottingham Trent University and Advance HE Board member, welcomes Advance HE’s new online community platform, Advance HE Connect, which launches next month, providing the infrastructure for individuals, groups, communities, networks and organisations within HE globally to share, connect, and collaborate.
With preparations for REF 2021 and the first subject-level TEF assessment potentially coinciding in 2020, and with the Knowledge Exchange Framework on the horizon, there is no shortage of challenge at discipline level in higher education here in the UK. Indeed, I know from colleagues outside the UK that similar pressures and challenges are faced at discipline level in many parts of the world.
Historically the HEA’s Subject Centres had strong links with subject communities and led the way in identifying discipline specific pedagogies and providing credible, relevant, subject-specific resources and guidance. While a reduction in central funding resulted in the closure of the Subject Centres, some of the most active subject communities have survived and thrived. Vibrant, member-led communities continue to provide networking events and subject-specific continuing professional development, for example, the Royal Geographical Society’s involvement in the training of external examiners. Learned Societies and Professional Bodies have also been instrumental in championing the need for discipline based pedagogic research and supporting, recognising and rewarding teaching excellence, for example, the Royal Academy of Engineering has had an active role in supporting the Engineering Education Research Network.
Advance HE aims to increase its support to subject areas using flexible, cost-effective and efficient approaches to supporting academic practice in the disciplines with its members around the world.
Whatever the outcome of the TEF Review the provision of metrics data at subject level has enabled some interesting discussions about how different courses contribute to an institution’s areas of strength or indeed, which areas need more focus. Course teams should be able to look to their discipline communities to identify ideas for good practice and solutions to common issues; and that sharing and learning should not be restricted by physical borders.
With the breadth of high quality open educational resources readily available, the issues are not so much about developing course content but positioning the wider curriculum offer. Institutions, wherever they are, are charged with developing curricula that deliver student success for a more diverse student body, with varied prior educational experiences and social capital – and subject specialists need to work across discipline boundaries more than ever before.
Students, employers and wider society are demanding that institutions develop graduates who are creative, resilient and cognitively agile, with the ability to address societal challenges. In addition, there is a drive to develop further inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches which are required to address 21st Century economic and societal challenges. If ‘future-fit’ graduates are the aspiration, then changes in structures, practice and culture are likely to be required - and subject communities can provide insights into the current pedagogic practices and ways of thinking that are core to individual subjects.
The changing landscape has also provided opportunities: sophisticated digital communication tools provide a mechanism to make connections within and across subject and thematic areas, facilitating the growth of vibrant and sustainable global networks.
This is a complex space. There remains a will and a need for discipline communities to come together to address shared challenges. However the perceived impact of marketisation on university behaviour, particularly more competitive behaviour caused by university league tables and, in the UK, the National Student Survey, may be exacerbated at subject level, potentially resulting in less willingness to share best practice. Advance HE wants to build upon the experience and knowledge it has accrued through the merger of its predecessor organisations and, in particular, its strong track record of supporting sector-wide issues and discipline communities in a context of evidence for ‘What Works’ in addressing issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.
I welcome Advance HE’s initiative to launch Advance HE Connect and to work with the sector to build online subject communities that I believe they will have a major contribution to make in tackling shared and individual challenges.
Read more about Advance HE Connect