What I’d quite like from HEFCE is transformational leadership

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 11 July 2009

Caveat: Before we get started on this I’m not saying that HEFCE don’t lead already. The HEFCE Strategic Plan frames an enabling environment for encouraging devolved institutional approaches, flexibility of mission and dynamism in delivery.

At the Heads of e-Learning Forum meeting at he HEA in York yesterday, HEFCE Policy Officer Alan Palmer, opened up a discussion of what HEFCE should do about the implementation of its Technology-Enhanced Learning Strategy. HEFCE itself, and this was reinforced by other speakers during the morning, highlight efficiency, enhancement and transformation as major outcomes. What was not recognised was that these are also drivers for institutions, as education providers, social enterprises and businesses, when seen as part of a bigger vision and blueprint for change.

Two elephants were *outed* early on. The first was the economic crisis and its impact on funding, with HE likely to be asked for £180 million of savings in 2010-11. The second was the apparent migration of terminology within the relevant departments towards on-line learning, with an implied view that this might be cheaper. In managing the issues that arose around these two elephants Alan used the phrase “What HEFCE won’t do” five times.

The first issue, primed a discussion about detailed stuff that might lead to some efficiencies, and which might catalyse some transformation in educational practices, namely creative commons and copyright, open educational resources, managing student [lack of] mobility etc.. This point ties into the second issue as it appears that there is a view that we can simply do things better or more cheaply on-line. Didn’t I read that in 1997? However, to lever the economic or investment gains that are being mooted does not simply require e-Learning Champions or Educational Developers to see how technology can save the day. In fact the discussion, which is doomed to revolve around issues of revenue and capital rather than social justice, requires a focus on what institutions are for and why.

I recently blogged “Towards a radical manifesto? The Impact of Web 2.0 on HE” and, whilst accepting the damaging impact of digital divides and learning illiteracy, I argued that the most crucial element of the recent Committee of Inquiry’s report was that the “inertia of any established [HE] system [is]… unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. The next generation is unlikely to be so accommodating” about its HE experience. Pre-HE developments like Building Schools for the Future and the EYFS are critical markers for Universities that demand vision, leadership and transformation of how HEIs achieve.

If we are serious about meeting the needs of future learners, and in enacting efficiency, enhancement and transformation as major outcomes, then Universities need a proper reappraisal of their strategic plans, in order to make sense of the bits-and-pieces of change surrounding Web 2.0, OER, personalisation etc.. This requires that strategic managers look at service restructuring, rather than the silos into which Corporate Directorates ossify. This then demands that a vision drives a blueprint for how the organisation will operate in terms of its people [contracts, professional development, workloads etc.], organisation [linked to the management of those primary services], technologies [insourced, outsourced, driven by the cloud, CMS-related] and the information that it needs and manages [from its key current and future stakeholders].

Without this kind of institutional visioning and transformation, asking Heads of e-Learning what should be done to implement HEFCE’s TEL strategy is a redundant operation. At best it buys some time to think about possible restructuring of the curriculum, without ever thinking through how students, staff and local communities can be empowered.

So in answer to Alan’s question of what should HEFCE do, two things are needed. Firstly, demand that institutional strategic managers are serious about transformation as a driver for empowerment. Enhancement is all-well-and-good, but education should empower people and has be written into vision statements and blueprints for change. The Welsh Funding Council’s “Enhancing Learning and Teaching through Technology: a Strategy for Higher Education in Wales” nudges Welsh HEIs in that direction and HEFCE should be stimulating discussion and leadership on this issue. The TEL strategy offers an opportunity for taking a step back, when evaluating what a blueprint for 21st Century HE might look like.

Secondly, in the face of Universities being tied to Lord Mandelson under the latest reshuffle, there is a desperate need for leadership in the support of teaching across the sector. The Guardian highlighted this in its comment yesterday “Eduction, Education, Education“, with the fear that the Government would focus upon research intensive Universities that are perceived to be captains of industry or drivers of the economy and squeeze those for whom teaching is the thing. Refashioning our collective view of teaching and learning in HE, to promote an agenda for progressive pedagogies that recognises the needs of the range of 21st Century learners, and sees HEIs as social enterprises as much as businesses, demands leadership from us all. In lobbying governments, this demands active leadership from HEFCE.

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