It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS). So many brave innovations have come and gone during that time (CETLs anyone?), but the value of the NTFS has rarely been challenged. Often tweaked, but fundamentally the same scheme as it was 20 years ago, the NTF is a simple idea at heart. Each year choose 50 or so outstanding university teachers who are doing work that isn’t merely excellent but has a demonstrable national impact, bring them together, and celebrate what they do.
Does it make a difference? It certainly did for me – and I hope for those I have taught. It enabled me to do things – and to keep doing them when they might have fallen away under the usual pressures of the day-to-day.
I was a relatively early NTF (2005) which meant that it came with a significant financial award but it wasn’t the amount, it was the fact that it was mine. I didn’t have to ask permission within university hierarchies.
That’s a lesson – the value of even small sums if they are unencumbered– that has stayed with me.
On the face of it I didn’t do anything astonishing with the money. A few hundred pounds helped to pay the expenses of an eminent American clinician to come and do some masterclasses for us all. A few thousand helped to fund some keynote speaker expenses when we launched an international conference for legal clinicians (15 years on that conference is still running each year – and still growing. It may be one of the best things I’ve done!). I could do this because I had the badge of an NTF which helped to persuade people that there might be merit to the ideas – and because I had some pump-priming funding that I could use without jeopardising someone else’s budget. Small initial steps, but they enabled much greater long-term impact.
Shameful secret? That hasn’t changed: the sense of 'why me?'. And that isn’t false modesty – it’s recognition that for most of us our teaching is a collaborative activity. We work together as academics; we are often working in close partnership with our students (especially in a clinical environment); we are building on what others have done before us. I had the huge advantage of teaching in something inherently innovative – a large in-house law clinic, at that time vanishingly rare in the UK. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier to deliver great teaching in such an exciting and different environment. So we need to make sure that the scheme doesn’t just celebrate the out-of-the-ordinary and the eye-catching – it should celebrate excellence in all its guises.
And what should happen next? First, I am a firm believer that the scheme needs to survive. But that point is too often cast as a counter-balance to the esteem that we give outstanding research. I don’t think that’s necessary any more. We know we need to grow the next generation of great academics and great teaching makes that possible.
Secondly, could we ditch the “Teaching Oscars” tag? I don’t want to be chippy but frankly there are a million different celebrations of acting excellence now – there’s only one National Teaching Fellowship. It’s unique, and it’s special and it needs to be celebrated in its own right.
Third, the great strength of the NTF scheme should be the way it includes all disciplines – and that should drive some great inter-disciplinary conversations. I’m not convinced we’ve fully yet taken advantage of this even though there’s a thriving NTF community.
And finally, the scheme has worked to get better year-on-year, to ensure its processes are transparent and its outcomes reflect the diversity of the sector. But in the midst of rigorous processes and careful grading schemes, can we make sure that we leave room in our assessments of excellence for the unique, for the idiosyncratic, for the deeply unexpected? One of the glories of outstanding teaching is that it resists easy compartmentalisation. Let’s ensure that the scheme continues to recognise all the varieties of excellence, wherever we find them.
Philip Plowden is Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham City University. Philip originally joined Northumbria University Law School in the early 1990s, working in and then leading the school’s ground-breaking law clinic programme. He was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2005.