As the government’s Green Paper emerges today, there are a range of arguments being made against the central proposal of a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). A couple of these arguments consist of little more than shadow boxing, though they obscure a more powerful argument that can be made against the initiative.
I support what the government is trying to do so I want to engage carefully with the good argument against it, but let’s start by clearing away the shoddier ones.
The first of these consists of taking one element of what the government proposes to include in the TEF – student satisfaction scores or employability figures – and contending that the quality of university teaching cannot be judged by that single metric. This is a low form of strawmansplaining, a rhetorical trick designed to inhibit other people from reading what the government has actually proposed – a more sophisticated and multivariate framework for thinking about teaching quality, including but not limited to those two examples I’ve mentioned – and to take the speaker’s word for it instead. Don’t fall for it. Read what the paper has to say. Actually the proposal might be easier to deliver if it only relied on a single metric. But it doesn’t.
The second poor argument against the TEF is that we don’t need something of its ilk darkening the door of our universities because they already provide excellent teaching. I admire the courage of this conviction. I believe that every vice chancellor is absolutely correct when they describe the excellent teaching available at their institution. By the same token, I believe that they are also absolutely correct when, usually in a lowered voice, they start to describe the less than excellent teaching available at some of their peer institutions. To be fair though, most vice chancellors are more open about recognising that, even within their own institutions, the quality of teaching can be variable.
That’s the key. There is undoubtedly enough to work on in improving the quality of teaching.
So I come to the best version of the argument against the TEF, that it risks increasing the bureaucracy of modern university life; and the management culture which is displacing an older and more noble idea of the university. We want academics to teach in the spirit of the community of which they are the citizens and makers, not to teach as they are directed to teach by bureaucrats.
This critique has two types of bureaucrats in mind: those from central government, who are by definition designing the TEF; and those in universities, who will translate it into localised, bulleted versions and hold teachers accountable against them. As I mentioned earlier, the TEF will draw on a range of metrics, not a single one, and that makes this critique all the more powerful: the bureaucrats will be advancing on multiple fronts.
This argument, to be clear, is an argument against the TEF in principle, not simply against some details of its implementation. The TEF, on this analysis, is a category error, the application of a bureaucratic logic which is inherently at odds with the cultural value of higher education.
There are two reasons why I think the TEF, as the government has conceived it, survives this critique. The first is that universities enjoy significant market power. The TEF, as part of a wider effort across the Green Paper, is designed to strengthen the position of students and prospective students vis-à-vis these powerful institutions. So, to the extent that the proposals enable central government bureaucracy, it is in the service of correcting an imbalance that would otherwise exist.
Bureaucracy often has this function in modern societies: it enables citizens against other powerful social institutions; and replaces discretion, bias and chance with more neutral instruments.
The second reason is that the TEF does not purport to make any judgement at all about what is taught or how it is taught. Those decisions remain with university teachers. Yes, student satisfaction with what is taught or how it is taught is about to matter more. But it seems possible to me that university teachers can choose how to influence these metrics positively, in dialogue with other subject specialists, rather than comply sullenly with a manual provided by university managers. There will be some campus politics, of course, though it’s not obvious how the bureaucrats win if university teachers take the lead on talking and responding to their students – they’re much closer, if you like, to the critical market-moving information.
At the same time, we are lucky enough to live in a complex economy where the critical thinking skills – or Enlightenment values, if you prefer – that critics of university bureaucracy rightly espouse also produce a high earnings premium. Hence, even though the TEF is to include information about employability, this need not distort the choices that university teachers are making about teaching styles and methods.
For what it’s worth, I believe the argument in principle against the TEF is a strong one. But the bureaucrats haven’t won control. If they are advancing, then their advance can be checked by proud and confident university teachers, though only if they stop relying on specious arguments against the TEF and engage with the reality of what the government is aspiring to do.