How should academics respond to the TEF?

How should academics — the ones who actually do the teaching — respond to the plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework as outlined in the recent Green Paper? More specifically, how might we respond constructively in a way that has a chance of influencing the measures that are eventually implemented?

Two of the arguments that academics will readily turn to will cut no ice, even if they have some truth to them.

First, there’s no point complaining that the government has provided no evidence for the assertion that teaching in HE is ‘patchy’ with some of it ‘execrable’. It is true that the case for poor quality teaching rests largely on anecdote and hyperbole, yet for us to argue that there is no problem that needs addressing sounds – and is – complacent. Most of us, at least those who teach in traditionally research-intensive universities, acknowledge that (due, in large part to the incentives successive governments have put in place) teaching was for many years a low priority.

Second, we can’t make a convincing case against the TEF on principle by arguing that it can never provide a useful measure of teaching quality. Naturally, none of us will ever believe that anything the TEF measures can capture our own special brilliance in the seminar room, but given the world we’re in, it is surely better to have as many proxies for teaching quality as possible to spread the risk. It is encouraging that the Universities Minister seems to be fully aware of the pitfalls as well as the benefits of metrics. And as for the most controversial metric of all: do we really want to be making the case that future earnings are of no relevance at all to how a student should make a course selection? This would be a particularly self-defeating case for humanities scholars to make since we are also keen on arguing that our subjects provide young people with intellectual agility and imagination – qualities that will, in fact, prepare them well for the future, in body as well as in soul.

Whether we like it or not, the battle over the marketisation of higher education has been lost, and for academics there have been many gains along with some losses. There are now many more students and more full-time academics in the UK than ever before, and in terms of its flexibility and intellectual independence, the academic profession remains an extremely enviable one. Public investment in higher education in the UK remains at a low level by the standards of our economic competitors ,but presumably the best way of building the national case for increased investment is by working with, not against, an agenda of ‘accountability and transparency’ – aims that, in themselves, are obviously laudable.

Since our students are now taking on large debts to come to university – and doing so, especially in the humanities, essentially to pay our salaries – academics would look churlish to outsiders if we objected to the government’s stated aim of creating a flexible, transparent market that responds to what students are paying for.

The reality is that market pressure since the lifting of the cap on undergraduate recruitment has already pushed universities to take teaching more seriously, and this, surely, is a Good Thing. A generous interpretation of the Green Paper – one that takes it at its own word – is that the government is simply trying to push that process further.

Our message should be that the best researchers are often the best teachers, that these two strands of our academic lives are of equal and co-dependent value, and that ideally universities would operate according to an incentive structure that recognises the value of both.

In the past, academics have (rightly) been held accountable for their research through the (much-criticised, but still, on-balance, better-than-likely-alternatives) REF but, generally speaking, not for teaching. But if the basic unit of analysis in the TEF, as in the REF, were to be departments rather than universities as a whole, this would change. It would create a currency in good teaching, just as we have already translated our research into our ‘REF-ability’.

The TEF should not be about what university managers do with spreadsheets. A positive teaching culture in universities requires top-down support, of course. Resources (which, handily, can be measured) are obviously fundamental–you can’t improve the ‘student experience’ if the library is poor and the teaching space is inadequate. But ultimately universities should feel compelled to create a climate in which innovative, enthusiastic and effective teaching is encouraged and rewarded among its staff. If the government means what it says, it should also remove barriers to universities adopting flexible (2-year and part-time) degrees to cater to different segments of the student market.

This is all most likely to happen if the regulatory framework gives students more consumer power, including making it easier for them to take their ‘custom’ away from an institution by transferring to another mid-degree.

We have the opportunity to make this case to government. The emphasis in this oddly undeveloped Green Paper on the need for the TEF to have ‘credibility’, as well as the scattered references to the possible role of Learned Societies in shaping curricula, gives us as teaching academics a bridgehead that we should occupy. And after all, it is teachers, and not university managers or civil servants in BIS, who not only can do most to shape students’ teaching and learning experience, but are also the ones in the best position to be sensitive to what students want, and need – and indeed to shape perceptions of both.

Of course it would be naive to think that the government has no objectives in mind other than a high-minded desire for academics to take teaching (even) more seriously.

Obviously it is in the nature of a market to create winners and losers. Presumably the government will, as Martin Eve has argued, use the TEF to cut funding from institutions it doesn’t like. The Green Paper suggests the government is willing to bear the potential political risk of ‘market exit’ by an HEI. They could hardly say otherwise given their stated aims.

‘Market exit’ is the sort of euphemism that sends most academics into a frenzy. Naturally, we rally in solidarity with beleaguered colleagues in institutions where they face redundancy or where working conditions are declining. There but for the grace of God, and all that.

But we should never lose sight of the big picture: most of us would say that we’re in this profession because of our commitment to research, to our disciplines, and, through teaching, to help prepare people, whatever their background, for the future. We should not be trapped into the position of seeming to defend the institutional status quo for its own sake. No doubt it would be easier and probably cheaper for the government to support the universities that exist rather than trying to drive some out of business, yet it is surely not beyond the realm of the credible that a new entrant into the market might serve our aims as well if not better than an existing provider.

Yes of course it is necessary to remind the government of evidence from around the world, including the 2014 NAO report into alternative providers, suggesting that new entrants into the sector, especially for-profit providers, will need extremely careful scrutiny if they are not to end up wasting the money of hard-working tax-payers as well as duping students. But it is the nature and effectiveness of the likely new providers not the very idea of them that should be the focus of our attention.

By far the greatest problem with the TEF, as David Kernohan, Martin Eve, and Martin McQuillan have pointed out, is the danger that it will set up a hugely expensive new bureaucratic edifice, increase ‘red tape’, place price controls in the hands of the Secretary of State and create artificial market indicators determined by government-picked ‘experts’. Far from empowering students as customers, the danger is that it will impede HEIs from providing what punters actually want, such as part-time degrees. As in other areas of public policy, the Conservative Party appears torn between a deregulating, free market impulse and a compulsion to control outcomes.

Even Jo Johnson’s supporters accept that a looming bureaucratic monster is the weak, perhaps fatally weak, part of his plan. But in pointing this out – as we must — we should be aware that the only likely alternative to a government-controlled pseudo-market is not no market at all but something that most of us would find even less congenial. Peter Ainsworth, author of a paper for the IEA on the future of Higher Education, has described the Green Paper as ‘stuck in the age of state control and corporatism’. His alternative plan, sketched out on the Conservative Home website should be essential reading for academics critical of the Green Paper. He proposes one simple, non-bureaucratic measure of a university’s success: graduate earnings, precisely the simplistic metric that the government has decisively rejected.

The TEF need not be the threat some have made it out to be. We may not like where we are, but our best course now is to engage with the process of creating a minimally bureaucratic system that puts incentivising teachers at its heart. We do a valuable thing in teaching and research – valuable in every sense of the word – and we should trade on it.

3 thoughts on “How should academics respond to the TEF?”

  1. Steven Jones says:

    “As for the most controversial metric of all: do we really want to be making the case that future earnings are of no relevance at all to how a student should make a course selection?”

    No, but is anyone actually making that case?

    The case being made is that future earnings are a poor indicator of teaching excellence.

    Graduate salaries are predicted by what kind of subject you take and what kind of university you attend. They’re also predicted by your socio-econonomic status, your school type and your associated social capital. But the reason graduate salaries are a controversial TEF metric is because they’re much less affected by the quality of teaching received at university.

    Course selection is another matter entirely, but Key Information Sets already include details of average salary six months after graduation, and I’m not aware of anyone making the case that such information should not be freely available to university applicants.

  2. aipsmith says:

    That’s a very helpful clarification. Actually, I know plenty of people who object to the inclusion of graduate earnings in the KIS data, both on principle and because they have (understandable) complaints about the methodology, but apart from that I basically agree with this.

    Yes, graduate earnings are of relevance to course selection, but are manifestly not a good proxy for teaching quality. Even the Green Paper seems to accept this.

    Presumably, therefore, the reason graduate earnings are mentioned in the Green Paper is because the government is not just concerned with teaching excellence but also with shifting finite public resources away from some (sorts of) institutions.

    In responding to the Green Paper, I think we need to be clear about what measures are genuinely likely to be, even remotely, proxies for teaching quality, and those that are simply about forcing greater diversity in fee levels. But in separating these two things out, I just don’t think there’s much mileage in future earnings being (even more) available than now as one of the factors that will drive the student market.

    All I’m trying to do in the piece is to try and sketch out what a ‘constructive’ response might look like. Obviously if the Green Paper is not at all what it purports to be and the government are actually not interested in teaching quality at all, then we’re wasting our time. But for what it’s worth, my assumption is that they do care about teaching even while they have a much broader agenda.

  3. I’d take issue with the assertion that ‘you can’t improve the ‘student experience’ if the library is poor and the teaching space is inadequate’. As an external examiner one of the best courses I ever saw was delivered from portakabins, with a very poor library facility and no real understanding of the subject from institution management.
    I’ve experienced courses where the quality of the student experience had nothing to do with resources, and others where despite state of the art facilities the student experience was awful.

    My own educational experience – I’m an OU graduate – underlines this. There the quality of your library depends on what’s nearby and what access you have to it, but that variability doesn’t seem to translate into variable NSS scores.

    Good quality teaching compensates for bad spaces and facilities, but the reverse is, in my experience, never true. My hope with TEF is that universities stop throwing money at their campuses and start throwing it at teachers instead.

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