Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy

Earlier this year, I was awarded Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy and I thought it might be useful to share my experiences of the application and recognition process to assist others who are considering an application.

Context

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is a national body that champions teaching quality and focusses on the contribution of teaching as part of the wider student learning experience. Essentially, its mission is to improve learning outcomes by raising the quality and status of teaching in higher education. The HEA offers four grades of fellowship, depending on levels of knowledge and experience, starting with Associate Fellow, then rising to Fellow, Senior Fellow, and finally Principal Fellow. HEA fellowships are aligned to the UK Professional Standards Framework (a nationally-recognised framework of guidelines), so receiving one is proof of good practice as well as important recognition for your work!

The HEA offers two pathways to Fellowship; an ‘accredited’ route and an ‘experienced’ route. In this post, my discussions will be focussed on the experienced route, because that was the pathway that I followed and because, I would suggest, it requires a higher level of autonomy on the part of the applicant than the accredited route (and thus useful to hear about someone else’s experiences).

The accredited route generally applies to people who have completed an HEA-accredited continuing professional development (CPD) programme or Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in teaching and learning. You will usually be informed by your programme leader if the course you’ve completed is HEA-accredited and, if so, which level of HEA fellowship it is most applicable to. You then simply complete the application form and pay the relevant fee.

The experienced route applies to teaching academics or learning support staff who have gained relevant levels of knowledge and experience through practice and, for this route, candidates apply directly to the HEA for a Fellowship. For the experienced route, you will need to demonstrate in your application that your knowledge and experience meet a specific ‘descriptor’ of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). It is therefore important that you familiarise yourself with the UKPSF and work out which descriptor relates to your current level of experience before embarking on this route.

Are you at the right level?

My first piece of advice, before applying for Senior Fellowship of the HEA (SFHEA), is to consider whether or not it is the appropriate level of fellowship for your current level of knowledge and experience. SFHEA is awarded in recognition of a ‘sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, incorporating the organisation, leadership and/or management of specific aspects of teaching and learning provision’. Therefore, it is primarily applicable to ‘experienced staff who are able to demonstrate impact and influence through leading and managing within a learning and teaching context’.

The application process for SFHEA is much more involved than for Associate Fellow or Fellow and you will need to have (and be able to prove) a ‘sustained record of effectiveness’ in order to complete the application forms. All fellowship applications require you to submit an Account of Professional Practice (APP) which is a ‘reflective commentary on your higher education roles, responsibilities and professional experience focused on selected Dimensions of the UK Professional Standards Framework’. However, for SFHEA, not only does your APP need to address more aspects and higher levels of the UKPSF, you also need to submit two ‘case-studies’ as evidence of your contributions to ‘learning and teaching’ and ‘leadership and management’. If you do not have the requisite levels of knowledge and experience required for SFHEA, you probably won’t have sufficient evidence for your case studies and you will struggle, overall, to complete the application process.

To give you some basic idea of kind of experience applicable to SFHEA, here is a selection of the kinds of things that I do. I have been teaching in HE for eight years, I teach across all year levels, I create modules from scratch, I am a module convenor and a year group tutor. I employ innovative methods of teaching and assessment, I am responsible for coordinating staff and resources for groups of modules, I have established departmental procedures and contributed to best-practice guidelines. I sit on interview panels, mentor new members of staff, sit on departmental and university committees, engage in high degrees of public engagement and I undertake CPD in relation to both my subject area and professional practice. When I looked at the criteria for Senior Fellowship, I felt that my role placed me at the appropriate level and, with my knowledge and experience, I would be able to fulfil the criteria.

The application process

The SFHEA application process is, undoubtedly, quite involved, requires a high degree of information management, lots of attention to detail, familiarity with the UKPSF, and a clear understanding of how what you do on a day to day basis relates to the UKPSF. However, I have to say that, personally, I did not find the application process that onerous or difficult to complete. I would suggest that was because I was at the appropriate level and had the necessary knowledge and experience to meet the criteria without any real difficulty; all that was required was communicating that through my APP and my two case studies (which, admittedly, did take some doing, but it was, nonetheless, a relatively straightforward process).

The application guidance notes provided by the HEA are excellent for outlining what you should include in your APP when applying for SFHEA. Overall, the APP should be no more than 6000 words in total, which has to include your reflective commentary and your two case studies. My APP was broken down into approximately 2500 words for my reflective account, 1500 for my ‘leadership and management’ case study and 2000 words for my ‘learning and teaching’ case study.

I would say that the main thing with the reflective commentary section is simply to explain, in a clear and straightforward manner, what you do, why you do it and, crucially, the wider implications of what you do. You are, essentially, explaining to the assessors what you do in your role and, importantly, demonstrating that what you do meets the specific elements of the UKPSF that relate to the appropriate descriptor (in the case of SFHEA, this is Descriptor 3).

When demonstrating that you meet the particular elements of the UKPSF you can (and should), include specific references to the appropriate criteria. This helps the assessors to see that you understand the UKPSF and, more importantly, that you recognise how it actually relates to and informs the job that you do. So, for example, here is a short extract from the reflective section of my APP.

“I design, develop, convene and teach an extensive range of innovative modules across all four undergraduate years [A1, A2, A3, A4, K1, K2, K3, K4, K5]. I design entirely new modules which are derived from my own research, examples being *** and *** as well as expansively developing and adapting existing modules which I have inherited [A1, A5, K1, V3]. All of my modules have been created in compliance with the quality standards and regulations of the university and in line with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Subject Benchmarks for history [K6, V4] (QAA, 2014). As well as delivering lectures, seminars, workshops and tutorials, I create and administer the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for each of my modules and I am responsible for selecting and supplying students with appropriate study materials and resources [A2, A4, K1, K4]”.

For upmost clarity, I chose to reference the UKPSF criteria at the end of the appropriate sentence, as I would with a footnote reference, but I have seen other (successful) applications which collect together all the references at the end of the paragraph. The important thing is that you clearly demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the connections between the UKPSF and the things you do.

Devising your case studies

With regard to the two case studies, one of the best pieces of advice I was given (and which I positively endorse) was to structure the case study on the basis of how you addressed a particular issue and the outcome of your actions and/or interventions. So, your case study is basically saying, ‘there was a particular issue that I identified needed addressing, here is why (in the wider context) the issue needed addressing, here is what I did to address that issue, and these are the outcomes or implications of my actions (positive or otherwise)’. I found that this ‘problem’, ‘intervention’, ‘outcome’, structure worked very well indeed and it allowed me to focus reflectively on my particular role in the activity and demonstrate my skills and abilities while also ensuring that my discussions were analytical and explained the importance of what I’d done, rather than just being a narrative of the activity itself.

For one of the two case studies, you need to demonstrate having had ‘a significant impact upon the co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/or mentoring of others (whether individuals and/or teams), in relation to learning and teaching’. This is, essentially, a case study about your knowledge and experience in areas of leadership and management.

For this case study, I documented my leadership and management in addressing some issues we were having with getting year-one students to engage with primary source evidence and approach sources in an analytical manner. Our year-one modules are all ‘team taught’ and so there were numerous members of staff involved with delivering information and guidance to students. In my role as year-one tutor and in collaboration with several colleagues, I developed a range of resources and best-practice procedures to ensure that, across all modules, students received consistent advice and tuition about how to analyse primary sources. We also ensured that there were opportunities in every module for practice and formative assessment of source analysis exercises and that, when setting exam papers, all convenors worked to a standard structure which ensured a degree of consistency across all exam papers and, crucially, that the assessment would allow students to fully demonstrate the skills they had acquired. The learning outcomes of these changes are still being assessed, but in terms of leadership and management it was clear that we had addressed some significant issues and created a much more coherent and consistent approach to the task.

For the second case study, you need to demonstrate your ‘sustained effectiveness in relation to learning and teaching and that you meet the criteria for Senior Fellowship’. This is basically a case study in which you demonstrate your knowledge and experience in areas of leaning and teaching.

For this case study, I showcased my introduction of blogs and blogging as a form of assessed coursework, some aspects of which I have outlined and discussed in previous posts on this blog. I situated my particular activity (blogging) into the wider context of debates about ‘digital natives’ and ‘knowmads’, explaining how the students who fill our lecture theatres and attend our seminars will, in many cases, be entering a very different world of work and employment where skills such as blogging and social media may well be more applicable to their jobs than extended pieces of formal writing. In the case study I explained what the issues were, I situated them into the wider context of both my subject area (History) and higher education more generally, and I then documented my interventions (introduction of blogging as a form of assessment) and some initial results of those interventions. As you will see from earlier posts on this blog, the outcomes of the initiative where not universally positive, but the crucial thing from a learning and teaching perspective was to evaluate and address the strengths and weaknesses of the activity and move forward; something which was positively achieved.

Coming back to my earlier statements, I would suggest that if you are at the appropriate level for SFHEA you will not have too much trouble identifying and writing up two practice-based case-studies as you will have the length of experience to have undertaken such activities. If you do not yet have sufficient experience for your case-studies, but intend working towards applying for SFHEA, I would suggest making it a priority to identify things you are doing (or could be doing in the near future) from which you can collect evidence and utilise as case studies. This may simply be documenting something innovative you are already doing as part of your L&T practice or it may be that you need to involve yourself in a team project or committee at department or university level. Seek advice from your line manager or Head of Department and work with them to identify areas for personal and professional development that you can then utilise in your application. If you are at the right level, you will be doing things that meet the criteria; you just need to look more closely to identify them and recognise how they align with the UKPSF. Try to avoid simply doing things or arbitrarily taking on extra responsibilities just so you have something to put in your application; rather, recognise what you are already doing or take on things because they are suitable opportunities in themselves.

Referee statements

In addition to your APP, the other central component of your application for SFHEA are the statements from your two referees. The HEA recommends that at least one of your referees is a Fellow, Senior Fellow, or Principal Fellow of the HEA or ‘an appropriate experienced member of staff working for a higher education institution’. In my case, one of my referees was my Head of Department, who was very familiar with what I did, and the other was one of our external examiners, who had been examining all my modules for the previous four years. Your referees need to be familiar with your experience and achievements specifically in learning and teaching, rather than your record of research which is only relevant (in this instance) in so far as it directly informs your teaching. It really is vital that your referees have a well-developed knowledge and understanding of what you do as their statements are far more involved than a straightforward academic reference.

Your referees have to be able to ‘comment on how the applicant meets the Dimensions of The UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) for teaching and supporting learning in higher education’ and, as such, they themselves need to have a really good knowledge and understanding of the UKPSF. The referees also need to provide ‘practical examples’ to support their comments and so they really do need to be familiar with what you actually do or have done. You need to select your referees very carefully, not only to ensure that they have the necessary knowledge to compose the statement, but also to ensure that they are aware of what they are undertaking. Writing a referee statement for a SFHEA application will take a significant amount of time and work and it is vital that you make that clear to your referees when you are asking them to support your application. The HEA provides guidance notes to send to referees but, personally, I would, ideally, try and meet with each referee well in advance of the process and explain to them, candidly and explicitly, exactly what will be needed and the amount of work that could be involved.

The HEA recognises that ‘this is a different kind of reference from one that is normally required for promotion or a job appointment, as we are looking for evidence of the applicant’s commitment to effective practice in teaching and/or supporting learning, rather than general academic achievement’. As such, you can regard the referee’s statements as being less of a confidential evaluation of your abilities and perhaps more of a collaborative effort, whereby you might, to some degree, work with the referee to perhaps highlight particular areas that you have not had space to discuss at length in your APP, or you might provide them with additional context on the activities discussed in the APP. Keep in mind that you are assembling an application which explains to the assessors what you do and demonstrates that, for SFHEA, you are operating and performing in line with Descriptor 3 of the UKPSF; all the resources you submit, including your referee statements, should be working in tandem to fully support that objective.

Submitting your application

Once you have completed your APP and received your referee statements, the application procedure itself is relative straightforward and is all undertaken online. You need to register with the HEA and then you simply log in and follow the instructions to submit your application. Applications for SFHEA have a rolling deadline and so you can apply at any time during the year. The length of time it takes to receive a decision depends very much on the dates of the HEA review panels, which are generally held each month. You should typically allow 6-8 weeks for a decision (although I heard within a month). This is particularly relevant if you are planning to utilise your fellowship of the HEA in relation to applying for a post or a promotion; bear in mind that it can take some time to complete the application, obtain your referee statements and receive a decision.

The good news is that if your initial application is unsuccessful (often due to insufficient evidence for meeting the criteria) it will be referred back to you along with constructive advice for revisions. Particularly with applications for SFHEA, if the assessors feel that you are not at the appropriate level, they may encourage a reapplication at a lower level of Fellowship. You are offered one opportunity to resubmit without being charged again, but after that all reapplications incur further costs. When I was applying for SFHEA, the impression I got was that it is not uncommon for people to apply for Senior Fellowship when they are not quite at that level, but also that there are relatively few applications to the HEA which do not qualify for a fellowship, even if it is lower than the grade applied for.

You should bear in mind that membership of the HEA is not free and there is a charge to submit your application. If you are from an institution that subscribes to the HEA, the cost of applying for SFHEA is £300. If you are from a non-subscribing institution or an independent scholar, the fee is £600. At the moment, it is just a one-off payment and there is no annual fee for membership, although there has been some talk of the HEA introducing annual membership fees for fellows. It is worth asking in your department or the wider faculty if there is any additional financial support to assist with the costs of becoming a fellow of the HEA and many institutions recognise the value of HEA membership and will support applications. It may also be that your institution offers facilities for the accredited route so always check that first before pursuing the experienced route (particularly at your own expense).

Conclusions

So, overall, I found the process of applying for SFHEA relatively straightforward and I think that if you have reached the appropriate level and are, on a day to day basis, undertaking the activities that sustain you at the appropriate level, you will not have too much trouble putting together an APP including two practice-based case studies. I would suggest that if you start assembling an application for SFHEA and you are struggling to fulfil the criteria or to identify two suitable case studies, you should probably think about applying for Fellowship or Associate Fellowship while you work to gain the necessary experience for SFHEA.

I think there are a number of really good reasons to work towards and apply for SFHEA.

Firstly, researching and writing your APP is a highly reflective process and it is a really useful opportunity to step back and take a good look at the job you do and to evaluate your skills and experience. This not only reminds you of the range of things you do and your professional expertise in those things, but it also allows you to see where there is room for growth and development and areas of your role that, going forward, you might wish to move into. I found that the process of researching the context for my APP case-studies reinvigorated my interest in research and scholarship on pedagogy and widened my knowledge and understanding of the implications of digital technology on learning and teaching.

Secondly, from a practical and pragmatic perspective, HEA recognition is a valuable addition to your CV and institutions are increasingly regarding it as a requirement for employment and/or promotion. In that respect, it is a very visible indicator, a badge even, that proves and demonstrates to your employer (or a prospective employer) that you can operate and perform at a particular level in a nationally-recognised framework. It is not, though, a matter of getting the badge just to tick a box on your CV; you should regard it as a genuine reflection and recognition of your skills, and your abilities, and the expertise you have acquired and employed. For me, I feel I was already operating at the required level and that the things I was doing were simply part of successfully performing my role. Consequently, HEA recognition was, for me, exactly that; recognition of something was already doing rather than something I felt I was ‘jumping through hoops’ to attain.

Thirdly, in many institutions the criteria for SFHEA is closely aligned with many of the markers for Senior Lecturer and, again, from a pragmatic point of view, undertaking the process of applying for and attaining SFHEA can provide a valuable reflective opportunity to assemble an application for promotion. This was certainly the case for me and my award of SFHEA was shortly followed by promotion to Senior Lecturer. Likewise, those who have already undergone the process of applying for Senior Lecturer (or Reader) may find that they already have a good range of insights to use for a SFHEA application.

Finally, attaining a fellowship of the HEA and particularly SFHEA or PFHEA is, on some level, making a statement about the importance and centrality of learning and teaching within higher education and demonstrating a commitment to excellence in delivering learning and teaching. It is not necessarily the award itself which does this, but rather it is the process behind the award, which encourages practitioners to look closely at what they do and to recognise the skills, expertise and value that their work entails. With the inevitable advent of the TEF, there is going to be much more focus on demonstrating ‘teaching excellence’ and there is undoubtedly a danger that memberships and fellowships of professional bodies, like the HEA, could end up being seen as little more than quantitative ‘box ticking’ metrics. However, the more people who attain fellowships, the more people there will be who understand (and can explain and demonstrate) that these are genuine reflections of reflective practice and consistently high standards.

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