The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the UK Funding Bodies consultation on Subject Centres to support learning and teaching in higher education. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows from a variety of disciplines with direct experience of teaching and learning in higher education.

The Society welcomes the proposal to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in the UK higher education sector. However it will be important to ensure that any additional resources spent on these Subject Centres are justified by real improvements in teaching and learning. This kind of activity is often best carried out as a 'bottom-up' rather than a 'top-down' activity, which ensures that the most important problems are tackled and that solutions are practical, effective and put into practice.

The specific questions identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

A. Subject Centres


QA.1 Do you agree that this remit is appropriate? Should any of the above functions and activities be excluded? Should any additional functions or activities be included?

The remit, functions and activities seem appropriate to all disciplines and Centres. One additional activity would be the involvement of students as active contributors to the educational process to promote networking and the sharing of good practice. A formal structure for student-centred workshops, colloquia or seminars in which they prepared the agenda would be a useful adjunct to staff debates and workshops.

Care is, however, needed to avoid unnecessary duplication between the work of the proposed Subject Centres on the collation of information on available learning resources and the work being undertaken by JISC (Joint Information Services Committee) to collate, organise and make available electronic subject information.

QA.2 Should the balance of emphasis between wider pedagogic issues and C&IT-related activities be left entirely to the Subject Centre and its academic clientele? Would you wish to see a requirement for some minimum level of activities in support of each?

Each Subject Centre will have different priorities for development and innovation and the balance, therefore, should be left to the Centre and its academic clientele and not be prescribed. However, a proposal for a Centre that focused exclusively on only one methodology would inhibit meaningful progress.

QA.3 Are there any other issues relating to the proper balance between subject autonomy and the need for a coherent national strategy?

There are dangers of over specifying functions within this report. Once the remit for each Centre has been defined and agreed, Centres should be given the freedom required to develop their own agendas and innovate in response to the client groups. This does not, however, preclude the need for monitoring by a Central Management Unit.

There also needs to be recognition of the different historical, social and academic contexts in which subjects have evolved. Often it is from such diversity that disciplines gain their strengths. While the dissemination of good practice is important, there must never be any sense of imposing a methodology or learning strategy on a subject area or on any part of a subject area. A successful project for one department or Centre may not be transferable to another, where conditions, resources and organisation of the institution are dissimilar. The projects should, therefore, seek to build on existing discrete strengths and not attempt to create uniformity.


QA.4 Would you wish to see a single model (either unitary Subject Centres or distributed Centres) operating uniformly across all subjects, or do you feel there is merit in considering different models for different subject areas?

There should be a mixture of models, allowing for the different needs and practices of subjects and institutions. Proposals to establish Centres should be judged on their merits rather than on the basis of one prescribed model.

QA.5 Would you prefer a model based (predominantly or exclusively) on unitary Subject Centres, or a model based on distributed Centres?

A model based on distributed Centres would generally be favoured as being more likely to engage a larger population and allow for the input of more varied strengths, but unitary Subject Centre models should not be excluded. The distributed model would also be particularly relevant in relation to engaging the subject gateway participants from the JISC eLib initiative in the wider diffusion of information to subject disciplines. The distributed centre approach would, however, need to take care to avoid spreading the Centre’s resources too thinly.

An example of how a totally distributed approach might work could be: (1) the provision of a fund against which people could make bids; (2) a small central office to circulate information, to make the materials developed generally available, and to maintain a central computer database available on the internet; (3) all departments in a given subject group would be encouraged to send a representative once or twice a year to a meeting where projects would be presented, co-ordinated and reviewed. Assistance would also be required to enable some staff members to enable some staff members to be relieved of other duties in order to develop and document ideas to support learning and teaching.

QA.6 For either model, what nature or type of practitioner networking should each Centre be expected to create and/or maintain?

Each Centre should be expected to undertake most of the following:

  • Organisation and administration of meetings of interested participants on a regular basis held at a different institution on each occasion.
  • Creation of a regularly updated web site for the project.
  • Preparation of periodic reports on the development of the project for the subject association journal or other appropriate publication.
  • Hosting or facilitation of meetings of students from across the discipline.
  • Co-ordination of information from various working parties established to investigate particular issues.

Contracting process

QA.7 What guidance (for example, on the nature and level of services to be provided) would you wish to see incorporated into the tender document for the creation of Subject Centres?

The guidance should incorporate the undertakings and requirements outlined in the responses to questions A.6 and A.8. It will be important that the contracts provide long-term stability for the Centres to ensure that the best possible people are available to work in the Subject Centres on a medium to long-term basis. It will also be important that the service agreements with the Centres are drawn carefully to ensure that the remits and objectives are clear and fully recognised by the users inthe universities. A possible exemplar would be the service agreements used for the provision of high performance computing on a national basis.

QA.8 What factors would you wish to see taken into account when making decisions on the allocation of contracts for Subject Centre status?

Factors to be taken into account in making allocation of contracts for Subject Centre status should include the following:

  • Commitment of the host institution(s) to innovation in learning and teaching as demonstrated by its committee structure, established senior appointments in the subject area and central services dedicated to issues of learning and teaching.
  • Experience of the Subject Centre in the management of similar projects.
  • Proven commitment of existing staff to innovative pedagogic practices.
  • "Credibility" of the proposed Centre within the discipline e.g. continuing contribution made to subject association, past involvement in major issues relating to the discipline, and participation of staff in national education debates.
  • Ability to work constructively with the client group.
  • Imaginativeness of the bid in offering a solution to the requirements of the tender.
  • Geographical distribution.
  • Range of institutions participating in the bid (assuming a distributed model)

QA.9 What factors would you wish to see taken into account when making decisions on the allocation of contracts for the new system as a whole?

While it may be politically important to ensure geographical spread, this should not be the prime factor in their selection, nor should the placing of Centres in different kinds of institutions. The principal criteria must be the excellence of the tender in terms of its vision, the confidence of the selectors in the competence of proposers to deliver what is promised and the fertility of the ground in which it will develop, both locally and nationally. Clear reasons should be made available publicly as to why successful bids were awarded.

Distribution of disciplines across Subject Centres

QA.10 Do you support the proposed distribution of disciplines within subject groupings? Are any disciplines omitted? Are any disciplines allocated to inappropriate groupings? Should any subject groupings be further aggregated or disaggregated?

The proposal to use the same aggregation of academic disciplines as that proposed by the Quality Assurance Agency would facilitate the inclusion of C&IT activities in the overall assessment of quality by that body. However, much innovative teaching is successful in that it seeks to cross disciplinary boundaries rather than reinforce them. One discipline may have much to learn from the pedagogic practices of another. The new medical curriculum, for example, at Glasgow University has served as a model for Departments in the Faculties of Science and Arts.

In this respect, the proposed 23 Subject Centres seem very disaggregated. Too specialised within-subject views of teaching and assessment is often a weakness and the system would benefit from a stronger positive interchange of information about teaching methods used in various disciplines, and a better understanding of why differences exist. Within a unit of this type experts from each of the separate subject areas (and sometimes even from sub-sets of these) would be needed to cover these differences in emphasis. This would also take into account the importance of the General Degrees in Scotland, especially those in which multi/interdisciplinarity is a major and innovative feature.

With regard to Centres 7 (Performing Arts) and 18 (Art, Design and Communication), it is important to recognise the distinct differences between the learning and teaching of the disciplines for professional vocational training, from those in courses that investigate the art form in theoretical, critical, historical and analytic terms. The two Centres could, therefore, be replaced by (a) Visual and Performing Arts – Professional Training; and (b) Visual and Performing Arts and Cultural Studies – Theory and Analysis. Note that the Subject Centres in Annex A fail to list philosophy.

B. Generic Technology Centre

QB.1 Do you agree in principle that a Generic Technology Centre should be established?

While we would be in favour of a Generic Technology Centre, care must be taken to ensure that it did not inhibit a diversity of approaches to development. This Centre’s function could alternatively be carried out through sharing information between the Subject Centres and the Central Management Unit.

QB.2 Do you agree that the proposed remit is appropriate?

The proposed remit is appropriate, although the Generic Technology Centre should input into the Subject Centres on the basis of relevance to the latters' needs as made known by them, rather than the other way round.

QB.3 Do you think that the Generic Technology Centre should be a unitary Centre, or a distributed Centre?

The proposed Centre should be unitary.

QB.4 Are there any other issues you would wish to raise concerning the Generic Technology Centre?

The senior staff in HEIs with strategic responsibility for learning and teaching, identified as clients for the Centre in Para. 15, are not clearly defined. The Heads of Academic Departments, Schools, and Deans of Faculties would normally be most appropriate as they possess the necessary strategic responsibility.

C. Central Management Unit

QC.1 Do you agree that this remit is appropriate? Should any of the above functions and activities be excluded? Should any additional functions or activities be included?

While it would be necessary for the establishment of a Central Management Unit for the effective administration of the initiative, care should be taken that it does not work against innovation, and the peculiarities of individual client groups being served by Subject Centres. Its bureaucratic demands on the Subject Centres must be kept to a minimum and its administrative costs must be carefully monitored.

QC.2 Are there any other issues you would wish to raise concerning the Central Management Unit?

It is unclear to whom the Central Management Unit would be responsible, and who would monitor and control its costs. It would also be valuable for the Unit to have a strong working relationship with the Institute for Learning Technology.

D. Other issues

QD.1 Have you any comments on the relationships between the new programme and current and planned programmes of activity?

There should be a quick but smooth transition away from the existing CTI Centres to the new organisation. It can be anticipated that some CTI's will become Subject Centres and the skills presently available in others could be utilised in new centres. Given careful selection, this should be highly beneficial.

Care is needed to avoid unnecessary duplication between the work of the proposed Subject Centres on the collation of information on available learning resources, and the work being undertaken by JISC (Joint Information Services Committee) to collate, organise and make available electronic subject information

QD.2 Are there any other issues, not covered elsewhere in this consultation paper, which you feel are relevant?

There does not appear to be any time limit proposed for the various bodies that are to be set up, or for the measurement of their effectiveness. A review after 5 years would seem appropriate, followed by another review after 10 years.

Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands


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