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Creating a parity of esteem between teaching and research

05 Feb 2020 | Helen Higson National Teaching Fellow from 2014, Professor Helen Higson, explains how her award boosted her career and gave her the confidence to improve the perceptions of teaching in her institution and beyond.


What first encouraged you to apply for an NTF?

The first thing to say is that I applied twice, with 10 years in-between. Initially I was encouraged to apply because of my practice, but the second time I was encouraged to apply for my strategic work and cultural change across the institution, and my national work.

So, your two award applications represent the way your career had changed between those two points?

Exactly! As I lead on learning and teaching at my institution I was very reluctant to take up the nomination, but my colleagues encouraged me to do. We have an NTFS community of practice and they voted for me to go forward so that was an immensely heartening experience. My peers nominating me was a real boost.

What did you hope gaining an NTF would help you to reach in your career?

The first time I applied I was building my career. The second time it was really about the institution and the recognition of having an NTF within the institution and as a role model. It’s immensely personally satisfying because it’s about my journey.

How did you feel when you found out you had won the award?

I was absolutely delighted, totally delighted. I have three highlights in my career, one when I got a Chair in learning and teaching, one when I led my institution to 24/24 in the QAA subject review and the NTF.

The NTF led to what I could consider the fourth highlight in my career, which was actually going to get the award and walking down the nave of Liverpool cathedral in the dark with the organ playing. The lights were out, the candles were lit, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I just thought: ‘I’ve made it’.

Did you see the award itself contributing to other achievements since you won?

It’s made a real difference around changing the promotion criteria and the value of learning and teaching within my own institution. It’s a case of leading from the front and using it to make a difference to others as well.

What do you think it is about the type of recognition the NTF award confers that allows recipients to ‘lead from the front’?

It’s a national recognition and there aren’t many of us. It’s also a currency that people understand. We all have very different roles within the sector so it’s about impact and excellence, but its impact and excellence across a whole range of journeys.

How do you feel winning an NTF has helped you to have a positive impact?

It has allowed me, within my institution, to lead from the front, to have that credibility, to change the culture in the institution and to mentor other people outside my institution. As my NTF was on strategy and policy it was transferable into the national arena on things like the work that I’m currently doing with Advance HE on the board.

How do you think the sector has changed in the years since you won your NTF award?

The sector is very different and the TEF is the culmination of that. I think there is more parity of esteem between teaching and research.

When I went into higher education, teaching professionals were largely untrained and, as a consequence, some were really good and others were terrible, and even the ones who were good didn’t know why they were good.

Although the people at the beginning were sector leading, we hadn’t professionalised the whole sector. Now it’s more embedded, and I think there’s greater diversity of NTFs as a result.

Would you say the sector is close to achieving parity between teaching and research?

I think we’re getting there. For the last two years, I haven’t had a promotions board where a research professor queried the promotion of a colleague in a teaching and learning role. This reflects the understanding and culture.

In an institution like mine where we’ve just recruited 200 new academics in the last two years, some of them teaching and research, some of them teaching only, they’ve all had to be excellent in teaching to be recruited. I don’t think I could’ve ever done that before, but because I have that NTFS credibility I’ve been able to change the culture.

I think we celebrate excellence in learning and teaching as much as we celebrate excellence in research now, which I’m sure we didn’t before.

What are the key values that have informed your career?

Transforming lives of students and staff. Giving social capital. If you go to university, you’re happier, healthier and wealthier.

The OECD says that you engage in your children’s education more, you’re more likely to vote, you’re less likely to smoke, you’re less likely to have to go to the doctor, all these sorts of things. We have a responsibility to individuals and to organisations and society, which is why I value my work around the employable global citizens and the BAME attainment gap and inspiring teachers to close those gaps.

Higher education has got a bad press recently but actually we have a key societal responsibility and we perhaps haven’t managed that narrative enough.

Do you feel the NTF has impacted on your strength in leadership and strategy?

I would say it’s given me a confidence particularly as I haven’t come up the traditional route. I always felt I had to justify it for myself and I suppose I don’t need to justify myself anymore because I’m a National Teaching Fellow and no one is going to take that away from me.

I’m proud to be a fellow of the AUA as well, and I think that combination shows teamwork in higher education which is also why I think it’s excellent that the CATE has been introduced.

Finally, do you have any advice for this cohort of winners?

I would say the first thing they ought to do is go and see their Vice-Chancellor and tell them that they have it.

The second thing is if there isn’t a community of practice in their institution then they should set one up because I don’t think that institutions are using the NTFS enough. Thirdly, I would make sure that I’m engaging nationally in some way.

It’s important to not preach to the choir, but go out and use it to make a difference to other people who might not have come across the award.


Professor Helen Higson is Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Aston University where she leads on the implementation and delivery of the University’s academic strategy, including academic resourcing and developing and supporting academic departments.




Applications for a National Teaching Fellowship 2020 close on Wednesday 18 March 2020. Institutions can nominate up to three individuals for the award. Find out more.

Share your #NTFSis20 story with us on Twitter and join the Advance HE Connect group especially for National Teaching Fellows.

The ANTF Annual Symposium 2020 – A Decade of Change? will be held 5-6 March in Birmingham. Find out more and book your place

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