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Reflections on Senior Fellowship

08 Apr 2022 | Dr Aaron Cooper Dr Aaron Cooper from the University of Reading reflects on how Senior Fellowship has contributed to a more detailed understanding of his role in teaching.

Fellowship of Advance HE has been a constant throughout a varied career. The focus on impact, and the need to articulate development in order to achieve it has helped me make sense of my role as a teacher in a variety of contexts.

I initially joined in 2009 while working as a social science lecturer at the University of Huddersfield. It was a nice way of recognising the importance of teaching in HE at a time when the priority lay squarely with research. During this time, I completed a PGCE, alongside spending time in roles in Further Education and Foundational Skills. Many pedagogical strategies that I was able to adapt and apply to HE were not commonplace and so, at first, my appreciation was based on how it validated teaching in HE rather than being useful for my own development.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I left HE that I really started to draw on the scheme, and the resources that were beginning to be provided. I moved into a teaching and research role for the civil service and joint force command. While some of this work was directly related to HE -  supervising government funded PhDs, and tendering funded projects to academic teams - much of the work had a different focus. Nevertheless, I was able to use what I had learned. I enjoyed being in a position to lead high-impact research projects where findings are disseminated through changes in policy or the design and delivery of training programmes. I found that my background in teaching and communication underpinned my approach to research and analysis, particularly in the creation of useful outputs. The expectation was that I would conduct research to gain an understanding of an unfolding situation, and report my recommendations. However, I was able to devise outputs that embedded those recommendations in training programmes for optimal impact, developing programmes on topics such as conflict resolution and cultural adaptation.

Just as I was able to draw on Fellowship to underpin my approach to education outside HE, there was also symmetry in the other direction. The focus on using data to make evidence-based decisions, impact and evaluation, and sustained leadership across interdisciplinary teams have come in to sharper focus in HE during my time away. The skills I developed in the civil service actually supported a move back into higher education. I have found that my familiarity with these concepts enabled me to support their integration in a way that facilitates, rather than overwhelms. Complex issues such as cultural adaptation, like teaching, require a nuanced approach to evaluation and impact, where the evaluation of activity, and the articulation of its impact is challenging due to the number of variables influencing an outcome. It is important not to ignore it or treat it as a threat. If we can grasp it we can fill the vacuum left by lack of engagement and own the narrative. The biggest lesson for me is that it is important to not shy away from it; to accept that it is an imperfect process or risk being unable to justify valuable activity. 

Through engaging with Advance HE I have developed an appreciation of the Fellowship scheme, the criteria and the resources that I didn’t initially have in 2009. Enhancing the quality of your own teaching is difficult enough but I have felt the need to place much more emphasis on making sense of it with such a variety of experience. Thinking carefully about articulating the problem you are trying to solve, how your actions contribute to a solution, and making clear justifiable statements of impact are important. This way of thinking, reinforced during my time away from HE and supplemented with a more layered understanding, has enabled me to draw together my experiences in to a coherent pattern, learning lessons from each activity to be applied to the benefit of future endeavours.

I returned to HE in 2017 as an Academic Developer at the University of Reading, and set about curriculum enhancement activity with a strong understanding that the initial task was to make the implicit explicit, identifying extant good practice and shining a light on it. Shifting away from seeing evaluation as performance management and instead utilising and normalising the language of evaluation as an opportunity.

In 2019, I achieved Senior Fellowship. The scheme has helped me make sense of my career and harness a varied set of experiences. For anyone considering an application the scheme has been useful to me in two main ways; the first being an influence on my approach to teaching and curriculum design underpinned by the UKPSF. The second is the impact on stakeholders, and the way that fellowship supports meaningful engagements with collaborators.

  • UKPSF: The UKPSF provides a useful structure. The focus on teaching, knowledge and professional values has helped me to consider all aspects of my role in teaching, where a lot of what happens is nuanced and at risk of blending in to the expectation of “daily business”. It encourages active reflection on CPD; not just passively listing engagements but thinking about why you have engaged in an activity and how it meaningfully effects your approach or results.
  • Impact of Fellowship: Fellowship is useful in communicating an experience of curriculum design and pedagogy to stakeholders. This is important when collaborations happen across disciplinary or organisational boundaries, and was particularly useful while working with military colleagues. Academic development, like the civil service requires collaboration between people who have a very limited exposure to the respective fields of expertise. In such cases it is useful to let them know who you are and what value you can add, without the need or luxury of long introductions.

The scheme's focus on reflection, activity, outputs, collaboration and impact has supported my approach to development. I would recommend it to anyone considering an application as it encourages an active way of thinking which has developed my understanding of my role and what I can/have contributed.


Aaron Cooper is an Academic Developer at the University of Reading. Aaron’s responsibility for enabling curriculum enhancement across the University includes work on embedding the Curriculum Framework, Education for Sustainable Development, employability, and developing processes for evaluating impact.

Senior Fellow Writing Retreat: 12 October 2022 (Virtual)
The online Senior Fellow Writing Retreat is an invaluable opportunity to have the time and space to progress your application to become a Senior Fellow, receiving expert analysis and feedback in the process. Held over one day, the retreat offers you the chance to transform your notes and thoughts into an application that matches Advance HE’s criteria for Senior Fellowship. Find out more

Advance HE fellowships

Advance HE offer four internationally recognised fellowships, reflecting a wide range of professional practices carried out by individuals who teach and/or support learning in higher education. Fellowships demonstrate a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education. Discover which Fellowship is right for you here

In February, Advance HE announced plans for a sector-led PSF review. Find out more about the review


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