Time for action on teaching excellence for taught postgraduates

Image: IKON

There a rumours that the Teaching Excellence Framework’s extension to taught postgraduates (PGT), originally planned to start in ‘year four’ (we’re currently in year two: results in May 2017 for fee increases from 2018) are to be scrapped as it will be too difficult to implement.

This is on top of the slipping timetable for ‘subject-level’ TEF which is, we hear, struggling to find traction in the pilot exercises. Already, subject-level TEF has been formally moved to year five, or ‘the long grass’ as it might uncharitably be called. Any elaboration on plans for the PGT version of TEF has been conspicuously absent from recent announcements.

In a time, not so long ago, when PGT students couldn’t access state-backed loans, there was a strong case for prioritising interventions in safeguarding and enhancing the quality of the undergraduate experience. The National Student Survey (NSS), in place since 2005, has led to significant attention on undergraduates and, somewhat predictably, the introduction of a public ‘quality measure’ for one group of students has led to the neglect of others: in this case PGT. NSS, whatever you think of its merits, gets its power because results are publicly available, and they directly inform league tables.

Now, with the introduction of state-backed loans for PGT programmes – we learned recently that applications were up 22% in 2016/17 – there’s a more straightforward case for systematic evaluation of the experience of this group of students. The 2011 White Paper proposed a PGT NSS, but the proposal was never taken forward, and we don’t yet have a universal measure for postgraduates’ student experiences. The closest we have at present is the Higher Education Academy’s Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), but participation is voluntary, and the results are not published by institution.

Uncomfortable truths

There are institutions – many of them recruiting large numbers of students – where the debate (albeit behind closed doors) acknowledges a deficit in the quality of the student experience for PGTs. It’s also logical, if uncomfortably so, for institutions to focus their recruitment efforts on PGTs, but their quality and enhancement efforts on UGs.

PGT courses are a source of uncapped fee income. When their numbers, as well as fees, were uncapped, in contrast to tightly-controlled UG numbers, institutions filled their boots (or at least tried boot-filling). But universities are known to have lower entry standards for PGT, and to re-use content from undergraduate programmes on PGT courses without significant differentiation in the level of learning. This is hardly a compelling case for the standards of the awards, let alone the quality of experience. This will not change as long as there is a continued financial imperative to increase PGT student numbers, especially overseas students, as Deloitte’s recent survey of Finance Directors showed.

GuildHE’s Alex Bols has argued that any PGTEF must be a nuanced exercise. I agree, and UGTEF should also take a more nuanced approach than in its current design. But we shouldn’t accept the argument that the PGT student experience doesn’t warrant the same sort of attention as has been paid to the undergraduate experience. If anything, the PGTEF should have come first, to redress the historical imbalance caused by NSS.

There are some obvious obstacles to designing a PGTEF, the absence of a universal student survey being the biggest. HEFCE is currently in the early stages of work in this area, with plans to consult later in the year. TEF’s effectiveness hinges on its ability to use measures (or proxies) for quality and to evaluate performance based on the data available. If that means we have to collect more data to provide the underpinning metrics then so be it. As we’ve seen significant improvement in NSS scores since its inception, we’d also likely see improvement for PGT as greater focus is put into getting the student experience right.

Seeing in the dark

While the Lords have been doing their best to take away TEF’s link to the undergraduate fees cap in the HE Bill, we should remember that part of the purpose of the exercise is to provide an incentive for quality enhancement (carrots as well as sticks). It’s less obvious – without a set fee cap – to see how the government would provide financial incentives for a PGTEF. And it’s unlikely that government will seek to regulate postgrads’ fees. The prestige of the exercise might be enough to make it worthwhile, especially if UGTEF is effective at influencing prospective students’ choices.

There are over 230,000 taught postgraduate awards made in the UK every year. And with the advent of the public loan for home students, we can no longer ignore important questions about their quality (and we should probably have been focusing more attention, in spite of the funding arrangements). The 2016 White Paper’s proposal to do something about teaching excellence (or however you want to describe TEF) for taught postgraduates was some welcome attention on an undervalued area. Killing off the exercise before it has even begun because it’s too politically charged, too complicated to implement, or there’s likely to be too much resistance would be a great disappointment.

Join Team Wonkhe and a host of expert speakers on June 8th in London to explore TEF and the future of teaching excellence. Reflect on the ups and downs of TEF’s journey so far, and look ahead to the next steps for quality and excellence in UK higher education. Sign up for The Incredible Machine: What next for TEF?

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