Obituary: the death of a dear friend?

The HE Academy have announced the phasing out of the Subject Centres

We are all aware that the UK is in a financial mess and savings need to be made. The nearer the guillotine falls to your areas of interest the more intensely you are going to feel the pain. The tragedy comes when cuts kill off services of genuine merit and value. The recent announcement that a spending review by the Higher Education Academy will result in the closure of the Subject Centre network is a huge body-blow.

Although the closure had been anticipated, the loss of the UK Centre for Bioscience is likely to have a significant negative impact on the student experience. It was been my privilege to become involved in the work of the Centre from its earliest days, and I want to put on public record some of the benefits that have I have drawn from their work.

Resources: The Centre for Bioscience has always produced resources of the highest quality. Amongst other materials, the Centre has completed production of three volumes in their Teaching Bioscience Enhancing Learning series (on Self and Peer-Assessment; Uses of IT and Undergraduate project work). Their Resources for New Lecturers folder has provided contextualised recommendations for new academics within the biosciences. The Imagebank database houses over 7000 photographs and other images freely available for use by Higher Education practitioners.

Since first publication in 2003, the Centre’s peer-reviewed journal Bioscience Education has been highly appreciated by bioscientists throughout the UK, and beyond*. Articles are characterised by their ‘chalk-face’ relevance – I know of several colleagues in my own institution who have drawn directly upon these accounts in developing new initiatives in their teaching. Under the editorship of David Adams, the current Director of the Centre, a book on Effective Learning in the Life Sciences , authored by experienced practitioners from a plethora of institutions, is nearing completion. The Centre has also provided several rounds of small grants as seed-corn funding for the development of new teaching resources (I believe these are due to continue).

Events: During the past decade I have participated in at least thirteen day conferences, three residential Science Learning and Teaching Conferences and one Bioscience Reps Forum organised by the Subject Centre . I can say without exception that I have come away from all of these events more enthused, better informed and with novel ideas for how to improve my teaching. This kind of success ratio simply isn’t repeated via any other networks with which I have been involved. My experience is not unique, the feedback received for CfB events has consistently been excellent.

Community: Anyone involved in pedagogy will know that reference to Etienne Wenger’s “Communities of Practice” is de rigueur (I am sure it appears on informal “jargon bingo” cards at many education events). Any good cliche, however, only becomes recognisable as such when there is an underlying truth. The greatest value of the Centre for Bioscience has been its role as a genuine Community of Practice, a forum for disseminating good practice between colleagues who a geographically dispersed in their everyday work but share common interest in maximising the learning of students within their discipline.

Via their coordination of several Special Interest Groups (SIGs), the Centre has brought together those with many years of experience in teaching key aspects of the bioscience curriculum with others who are just setting out. It is one of the special features of the CfB that the learning on such occasions is not only in one direction – the informal and egalitarian nature of the interactions means that the “old hands” frequently learn valuable insights from the “new kids”.

This is the defining characteristic of the Centre for Biosciences – everything that they do is valuable, practitioner-to-fellow-practitioner sharing. There is never any of that feeling you can get in some educational communities that the telling of the story has been ‘dressed up’ to appear more than it truly is. You don’t get left with the feeling that “that may work for them, but it would never work in our place”. Wisdom shared via the Centre for Bioscience is grounded, ‘where the rubber hits the road’ wisdom.

I have included the word “obituary” in the title of this post. As it stands this seems appropriate (if a little premature). I nevertheless hope for a Lazarus-esque return from the bring. If the HE Academy itself cannot see that it is burning the Chippendale sideboard to ensure that the MFI furniture stays dry then it is imperative that someone else is found to support this outstanding network before its legacy drift from the present into history.

* Conflict of interest declaration: I was Editor-in-Chief of the journal for two years

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4 Comments

  1. A case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, hopefully some of the connections that the HEA Centre for Biosciences helped to nuture will live on.

    • At a personal level its sad
      at a teaching community level its very short sighted (imho)
      I hoped that mega SIG networks (ie the subject based groups) can be formed to bridge the chasms that will surely follow
      Please keep me in the loop!

  2. […] for students, staff workload and morale – never mind UK plc!. Sadly, however, with the demise of the subject centres and level of detail currently available on the restructure of the Higher Education Academy it is […]

  3. […] bloggers weighed in early with their responses such as Chris Wilmott who wrote his “Obituary The Death of a Dear Friend?“  For me that could be extended to “two dear friends” as I have also in the past […]


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