Michael Parker, Head of Membership & Networks at Advance HE reflects on his recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia and his time at the AACU. In this blog, he discusses the main theme of the conference ‘Reclaiming the Narrative on the Value of Higher Education’.
Reflecting on my time at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) Annual Meeting that took place from 23rd – 26th January in Atlanta, Georgia, the conference theme of ‘Reclaiming the Narrative on the Value of Higher Education’ felt unnervingly relevant to what many other HE sectors are facing, not least in the UK.
The opening plenary detailed the context of an American HE sector facing intensifying scrutiny in a climate where there is decreasing public investment in the system, higher burdens placed on students – who in turn have higher demands and expectations – and greater focus on value as something measured by job outcomes and earnings. There were also familiar themes of the role of the academy in a post-truth age, free speech on campuses, and student resilience (‘snowflake’ narrative).
The surge of populism as a global phenomenon has prompted wide introspection on the role, purpose and value of higher education, not least in trying to understand how we create prosperity and opportunity for future generations of students and society, whilst contributing to a more rational and balanced narrative. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor in Law and Philosophy at New York University, made a powerful case for the value of arts, humanities, and social sciences education as an “intrinsic social good” – providing tools that prompt a more reflective view of the world, and an appreciation of alternative perspectives that underpin an increasingly cosmopolitan (and global) society.
The importance of teaching
As we speculate on the outcomes of the Augar Review in the UK, and the potential for differential fees that could be perceived to take a reductionist view on the value of degrees as measured only by graduate earnings and ‘a job’, Appiah painted a very grim picture of a world where we no longer regard education as an intrinsic social good. The ‘Raising Our Voices’ strapline of the conference therefore became a rallying call to HE institutions, practitioners, and students to articulate why a university education - in the widest sense – is valuable to society and find ways to make it as visible as possible. Under this cloud of uncertainty for the sector (both in the UK and here in the States), the importance of teaching as the means by which institutions can most tangibly impart value in the education they provide to students emerged as a prevailing theme of the conference. Interestingly, institutions in the US are being challenged on the cost of tuition in direct relation to the teaching provided to students, much in the same way that this has emerged as a consistent theme in the UK in recent years (HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey): the desire of students to see their teachers at university as ‘professionally qualified to teach’ can be viewed as a way for institutions to demonstrate value (at least partially) to their students and has driven a change in the way universities recognise teaching practice.
Professionalising teaching in Higher Education
Advance HE presented at the conference in partnership with Queensland University of Technology and Utah Valley University, on the theme of professionalising teaching in Higher Education and the creation of a global community of professionally recognised teachers. Professor Abby Cathcart (Director of the QUT Academy of Learning & Teaching, and Principal Fellow of the HEA) and Wendy Athens (Senior Director of the UVU Office for Learning & Teaching, and Senior Fellow of the HEA) joined me to tell the story of the Professional Standards Framework (how and why it emerged and its uptake today), the value of the global HEA Fellowships, and what these mean to their institutions.
The passion with which both Abby and Wendy spoke about the need to recognise teaching as a profession, but to also do this in a globally benchmarked way that breaks down institutional and national silos, resonated strongly with the audience. The questions and reflections following the presentation indicated that many of the participants were used to varied, localised, and competency-based approaches to teacher development that focused heavily on new to teaching and that had little or no transferability, even regionally. The values-based, reflective approach of the Professional Standards Framework and the ability to contextualise the framework to individual institutional mission and demographic appeared to be novel, and could have the potential to support US institutions in achieving parity of recognition for their teaching staff and support them into a global community of practitioners.
Connecting, sharing, collaborating and learning
As we spilled well beyond our allotted time, discussions moved to a passionate discourse about the value of a global academy that could connect, share, collaborate and learn from one another for the betterment of all in the community; a community that supports teaching enhancement and promotes best practice from around the world but that is critically recognised for that practice in a consistent and comparable way. It is hard to not be excited by the prospect of an ever-growing HEA Fellowship Scheme that spans HE sectors across the world, and with the launch of an Advance HE online platform to support this community this year we will be able to encourage greater engagement and collaboration, providing value to our institutional members and their individual practitioners.
The challenges facing Higher Education are myriad and will require a concerted response to ensure universities and colleges remain integral to the economic, social, and intellectual wellbeing of society. Supporting, developing and recognising teaching in HE demonstrates a commitment to improving the learning experience of students - and if better development supports better teaching and ultimately allows for better outcomes for more students, then teaching increasingly being seen (and recognised) as a profession can represent, at least in part, a way of reclaiming the narrative of value of higher education.