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Principal Fellows: an under-utilised strategic resource

07 Jun 2022 | Dr Lucy Spowart As we publish ‘Exploring the impact of Principal Fellowships on individuals and institutions’, one of the authors, Lucy Spowart, shares her reflections on the key themes and the questions the report throws up for the sector.

Principal Fellowship – it’s all about impact and reach

Our recent research ‘Exploring the impact of Principal Fellowships on individuals and institutions’ has highlighted that there is much to celebrate in terms of the individual impact achievement that Principal Fellowship brings. However, significant work remains to encourage and support institutions to engage with Principal Fellows in meaningful, strategic ways and to seek some sector consistencies in how the award is recognised and valued, including in institutional promotions criteria. It should be noted that I am an ‘insider’ in this research project, a Principal Fellow (2018), and an active member of a regional Principal Fellowship Network. So, these are my reflections, positioned alongside some of the research findings.

Enhanced visibility externally, but often invisible internally

Our survey respondents told us that going through the process of gaining Principal Fellowship boosted their confidence in relation to the strategic leadership of teaching and learning and nearly half of respondents felt it also enhanced their career prospects. However, for many, Principal Fellowship was perceived to be misunderstood and under-valued by respondents’ senior leadership teams and did little to enhance internal credibility or opportunities for internal promotion.

I was all too aware when I commenced this project that some Principal Fellow voices are not heard. That has been my own experience too. That said, the extent of the frustration expressed and the apparent ‘invisibility’ surprised me.

Our survey of 304 respondents found that the second most popular motivation for applying for Principal Fellowship was to raise an individual’s profile as a leader of teaching and learning within their own institution (78.6%). However, only 28% of respondents felt the award had, in fact, achieved this. Instead, the greater impacts were perceived to be beyond their institutions where an increase in credibility led to consultancy and research opportunities.

Principal Fellows are an important strategic resource

It is my belief that Principal Fellows have much to offer institutions in a rapidly changing higher education environment. Principal Fellowships provide a route to recognition for applicants who can demonstrate a “sustained record of effective strategic leadership in academic practice and academic development as a key contribution to high quality student learning” (Advance HE, 2021). The research confirms that the application journey helped many to reflect deeply on their achievements and the importance of clearly articulating the impact of what they do. It forced them to take time to ‘zoom in’ on the ‘evidence’ and to package this in a convincing way. It shone a light on strategic achievements whilst also forcing some difficult questions to be answered, such as ‘Am I being effective?’, ‘Am I being impactful?’. Unsurprisingly then, this, often challenging journey assisted many of our survey respondents to grow professionally.

Harnessing the strategic potential via ‘Educational Think Tanks’

So, are some institutions simply not seeing or not knowing what is on their doorstep? Or is it a case of not understanding the requirements of Principal Fellowship and therefore not recognising the institutional value and potential to engage Principal Fellows in strategic agendas around teaching and learning? There is an uncomfortable irony when respondents are tirelessly working to demonstrate strategic impact precisely because they desire to play a greater institutional role in the leadership of teaching and learning. One Deputy Vice-Chancellor, based outside of the UK, told me that at his institution they brought Principal Fellows together to form an ‘Educational Think Tank’. He recognised the collective potential to drive strategic thinking around teaching and learning. This was exceptional though as, for the most part, our research illustrated that institutions do not draw on their Principal Fellows in strategic ways (beyond what the applicants were previously responsible for). Where Principal Fellows are called upon by their institutions it was typically reported as providing mentoring support to colleagues applying for Fellowships. Notwithstanding the importance of mentoring activities (our data identified this as the most useful support provided) using Principal Fellows only in this way is arguably an under-utilisation of a significant resource and does not assist in developing organisational sustainability.

Looking with fresh eyes

A part of appreciating what is on your doorstep is looking with fresh eyes. Rather than associating individuals with particular roles, and if Principal Fellowships were better understood, would there be a greater appreciation of their strategic value?  The report summarises the first substantive piece of research undertaken on this topic and aims to stimulate continued discussion and prompt further investigation. It illustrates the untapped potential of Principal Fellows within many institutions, raising some important questions for the sector:

  • how can we raise the awareness of the value of Principal Fellows?
  • what can Principal Fellows do (both individually and collectively) to raise their own profile within their institutions?
  • how can we better harness the potential of regional Principal Fellow networks?

Jump in and take a look. The project team would be really interested to hear your views.

Download ‘Exploring the impact of Principal Fellowships on individuals and institutions’


Lucy Spowart is an Associate Professor in Clinical Education at The University of Plymouth, a Visiting Professor at Aga Khan University and a member of Advance HE’s Expert Advisory Group for Fellowships and accreditation.  Lucy has been researching the impact of professional recognition over the past decade.

Professional Standards Framework Review

A sector-led review of the Professional Standards Framework is currently underway. Find out more about the Review, which aims to build on the Framework’s positive impact on learning, teaching and the student experience.


Principal Fellow Record of Educational Impact 

Colleagues who are in the process of completing their direct Principal Fellow application and looking for more guidance on the Record of Educational Impact (REI) element of their submission can book Principal Fellow Record of Educational Impact Support Session at Advance HE. Participants will be asked to complete a template on which to collate their strategic interventions, and will receive constructive feedback in a convenient, virtual, one-to-one session with an experienced Advance HE reviewer. Find out more.


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