The first Principal Fellowship in the Macquarie Higher Education Academy (HEA)* Fellowship program was awarded last week to Bill Ashraf. There are 102,000 HEA fellows globally, including around 900 Principal Fellows, which is less than 1% of the total fellowship. There are less than 50 Principal Fellows in Australia. Throughout his academic career Bill has applied the HEA Professional Standards Framework (PSF), in universities in the UK, Australia and in corporate settings.

Bill is a Microbiologist, (PhD University of Warwick), and has held positions as a Post-Doc, Lecturer, Senior Manager, Head of Department, Director and Strategic Consultant. He has taught subjects ranging from biomedical sciences to business studies. He has been the institutional lead in universities in the UK and Australia for digital strategy and digital transformation for learning and teaching.

At Macquarie he is the Convenor of the HDR Supervision Enhancement Program (Office: Dean Higher Degree Research) and is leading the MQ HDR Supervision Fellowship program (via training and evidence pathways). He is also working on digital literacies for HDR Supervision Enhancement and building conversations at MQ on HDR Supervision in a Digital Age.

What drew you to apply for the HEA Fellowship?

The HEA Fellowship is something I’ve been meaning to apply to for several years.

In the UK, and increasingly internationally, the HEA fellowship and its recognition is being embedded within university learning and teaching cultures, practice, and innovation. Certainly in higher education institutions in the UK, it is not only normal, it is an essential requirement as people move through early career academic probation and is desirable, if not essential, for senior leadership positions.

The fellowship demonstrates an evidence-based commitment to student learning.

For me personally it was timely to reflect, take stock and think what’s the next challenge!?

In the application process you have to talk about your experience in teaching and your teaching philosophy –can you share this with us?

I have experience across multiple levels; at the coalface as a practitioner, teaching biomedical sciences (biochemistry, microbiology and biotechnology), face-to-face (lecture room and lab), blended and online. I’ve also had opportunities to develop course administration, management and leadership skills at the Department, School, Faculty and Senate levels.

Over the last ten years I have been a strategic lead and ‘change agent’ for digital transformation of learning and teaching in universities in the UK and Australia.

In terms of my underpinning philosophy: it’s about providing the;

(i) best possible student experience in both physical and digital spaces to help them realise their full potential

(ii) working with students as partners

(iii) valuing and recognising that staff are central to what we do …support, encouragement and saying thank you goes along way!

In terms of success, it’s about creating a shared vision.

The challenge is to get all stakeholders onboard, energised, confident and appropriately supported to turn that vision into a reality.

What are some key initiatives mentioned in your application that you’ve implemented effectively?

During the application you have to evidence ‘what have you achieved?’’.

A Principal Fellow applicant needs to demonstrate sustainable strategic levels of achievement at institutional, national and/or international levels.

The good thing about the application, which was a little bit daunting to begin with, is that it requires you to engage in deep critical reflection and in my case that covered over 20 years! But my confidence gathered pace as I sat down and started documenting my achievements and what had not worked.

Undertaking the application process was a significant learning experience!

In terms of my achievements, I firstly considered my work in 2006 when I was a senior lecturer, when I abolished my first-year biochemistry lectures and started podcasting via iTunes and Blackboard, essentially ‘flipping my classroom’. But it wasn’t called the flipped class room model in those days!

Students started downloading my podcasts from around the world (even Australia!), without any advertising, because they could search for them via topics and keywords on iTunes and also web search engines. I think that was quite innovative in 2006. I was a finalist for the “Most imaginative use of technology in distance learning” for the Times Higher Education Awards.

The logical next question was ‘that’s ok as an individual, but how do we scale that?’. My next ‘big’ move was to work at the institutional level to make this happen as part of a bigger picture for digital transformation.

A crucial part of the technology-enhanced learning approach was working, supporting and leading excellent teams from across the university community including students, staff and the university executive.

How did you go about persuading staff that it’s a good investment to up-skill in these areas?

You need credibility. I was a front line academic staff who was able to demonstrate how I had embedded technology enhanced learning into my practice, and how it could save me time and help students learn, which was set alongside increasing expectations, in terms of course delivery, quality and support.

At an institutional level I was able to put into place systems and processes to help staff build their confidence, capability and capacity through the efficient deployment of resources. It’s also about being able to strongly influence perceptions and culture. This was achieved in numerous ways by

having key powerful institutional advocates such as the PVC (L&T), Deans and Fellows of the Royal Society embedding, for example, digital lecture capture/podcasting and other learning technologies to support their front-line learning and teaching practice – so that was a bit of a coup!

Lastly, I worked with colleagues and students to agree to a set of beliefs, principles and expectations for digital learning and translating them into policy, procedure and practice.

What was your experience of doing the HEA application, how long did it take you? Did you get support and did you have others review it?

I started the application back in UK but for a whole variety of reasons I had to put it on pause.

At Macquarie, I found it extremely useful attending the MQ HEA workshop led by Prof Abby Cathcart (QUT –  HEA Global Strategic Partner). There were lots of new people for me to meet and that proved invaluable as I am relatively new to MQ. I attended two of Dr Karina Luzia’s one hour on campus ‘writing retreats’, to find a quiet space.

You’re afforded one round of feedback, so once the application is finished you can submit it to an experienced external HEA reviewer, who provides confidential feedback to applicants. At first the application (particularly for the Principal Fellowship), looks quite daunting, but

there’s nothing in the application that you don’t already know.

Because it’s either in your head, or it’s in PDRs or job applications, or things you’ve written for annual reviews etc.

In total, it took me about 40 hours. So, that’s a week’s work, but I spread that out over 6 weeks.

What does it mean to you at this stage in your career, to now have this HEA recognition?

I think it’s recognition that you have achieved at a higher level against a set of evidence-based and tested externally validated and benchmarked criteria. That’s quite useful for you to know! It’s also about being able to demonstrate both to students and to your institution, potential employers, that you have achieved against a very rigorous international benchmark.

What does that mean to you?

Well, obviously I’m thrilled and delighted. But it’s really a big cheer to all the people who have supported and mentored me throughout my career. Basically, I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them and it demonstrates once again to me the power of team work.

What I would pass on to people, the one regret I have, is that

I should have been engaged in the type of activities that applying for an HEA fellowship fosters earlier on in my academic career. Learning to engage in critically reflective practice has been invaluable for me as a stocktake, and I intend to keep going.

Have you been mentored by a Fellow prior to this and are you going to mentor others?

Mentoring is extremely important for all of us, both as potential mentors and mentees. I’ve had two mentors, who have been very established people and I have a new one at MQ.

People might be hesitant, especially when they’re starting out, about asking senior colleagues, particularly if they’re not in their area.

In my experience of approaching mentors,

people are all too ready to support you.

They find it quite a compliment to be asked, ‘would you be my mentor?’. It’s important to say, ‘this is me, this is what I’m doing/planning, what do you think?’. There are always good things that are happening and not so good things, and I think it’s important to deal with both. You do need that external triangulation to assist you in choosing the right pathway.

I would be happy to be a mentor and help people with their HEA fellowship applications.

What would you like to see Macquarie do to foster this HEA fellowship community, or the ethos?

I believe we need to benchmark with our peers of good standing. For example UQ, USyd, ANU, TEQSA and others are integrating and forming strategic alliances with the HEA (now Advance HE) in significant ways.

In the near future I believe the majority of Australian university colleagues who engage in and/or support learning and teaching will have an HEA fellowship. It will be the “new normal”.

This should be a strategic aspiration for MQ as one of the ways its demonstrates its commitment to an excellent student learning experience.

One of the HEA’s aims is to ‘improve learning outcomes by raising the status and quality of learning and teaching in higher education’. As a Principal Fellow, how can you contribute to this aim? What’s your responsibility as a Principal Fellow?

I have an interesting role here because I’m in the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research’s portfolio. It’s great because you can argue that HDR training is teaching.

For those colleagues who support and engage in learning and teaching at MQ I can provide advice, if asked, especially regarding digital transformation strategies, learning analytics and quality assurance/quality enhancement initiatives or projects.

This month the Dean HDR’s Office has launched the MQ HDR Supervision Fellowship. The fellowship program replaces the mandatory annual one-hour HDR supervision enhancement workshops, previously a policy requirement for colleagues to evidence their supervisory currency.

In 2018 the fellowship program will foster reflective and critical practice, for early career researchers and professional staff in the HDR Supervision space.

The program has been informed by the HEA Professional Standards and the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, leading us to develop an MQ-centric fellowship for our HDR supervisors.

I may also be invited to attend and engage in various activities in Australia, as there is a network of Principal Fellows, both national and international. I may be asked to be an Advocate to support fellowship applications.

For those who aren’t comfortable blowing their own horn, this application process might be a little uncomfortable?

Something I haven’t really been used to is reflective writing: ‘let’s get this down on paper and really deep-think about this – what could I have done better, what have I done really well, what hasn’t worked so well, what have I learned and how can I improve my performance’.

The application process was a timely reminder too that’s it not just about one person. To be successful in a leadership role, you need to understand people and their emotions, that everyone’s different and the critical aspect to get things done is people culture. The second critical aspect is resourcing and its appropriate deployment for the right purpose, time and place.

What’s your leadership style?

There’s leadership on two levels; strategic ideas and innovation, having a vision and being able to get people on board with that vision; and the ability to interpret detailed analysis to explore, ‘how are “we” going to get that done?’, operational leadership and change management, ‘how do we get this going and culturally embedded?’.

I have an attuned sense of emotional intelligence, to recognise when people can just go ahead and work on a project and when people require more help and assistance. I bring a lot of enthusiasm to projects.

The most important component of my leadership is doing what I’m not doing right now – knowing when to shut up and listen. Less is more. I might Chair a meeting, but it doesn’t mean that I have to say much, it’s about listening and knowing how to persuade others to listen too. Listening, learning and adapting to settings is crucial. There is a diverse range of personalities within any organisation and I realise that everyone is as an individual and that this is a strength in building high performance teams.

It’s also about having a compelling vision. The challenge for higher education in Australia, where much of what we do in our daily life is or can be digitalised, is providing a compelling reason for students to come to campus. But that’s my next story!

Here’s a link to an interview with Bill on making lectures more active.

*The HEA Fellowship program is now part of and run through Advance HE.

Posted by Geraldine Timmins

I was Communications and Engagement Lead for the Learning Innovation Hub 2017 - 2018 and Teche Editor during that time.

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