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Can the TEF survive the arguments made against it?

With the debate about the TEF now truly up and running following the publication of the government's Green Paper, Emran Mian sets out the some of the stronger and weaker cases against the new framework.
This article is more than 8 years old

Emran was formerly Director of the Social Market Foundation, and a member of Wonkhe's Editorial Group.

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.

5 responses to “Can the TEF survive the arguments made against it?

  1. I’m not sure that the argument you take on here is really the strongest argument against the TEF proposals. The reason for variability in teaching quality within and between institutions is the rewards and incentives are not properly aligned. There is little to no reward for being a good teacher, or incentives to attempt to become one. If a TEF is going to drive up teaching quality, it needs to either 1) give actual teachers incentives to become better at what they do or 2) give university managers incentives to make individual teachers become better at what they do. From the individual teacher’s perspective, there is no additional incentive to improve arising from the TEF proposals. From the university managers perspective, the incentives to try and drive up teaching standards are nowhere near strong enough to justify diverting any attention at all away from pursuing research based activities. I am in favour of a TEF in principle and accept the need to improve teaching standards. However, this is only going to happen as a consequence of behaviour change at the coalface, and the TEF proposals don’t give any reason why this should happen.

    1. The TEF is unlikely to drill down to individual teachers like the old QAA subject reviews. It will probably use a basket of metrics, and if I know bureaucracies in HE, they will be different with every iteration. So graduate salaries/ destinations, learning gain, teaching hours, NSS – and more to be devised. Teaching quality will be still be attributed to institutions, leaving individual poor, or talented, teachers unidentified. These are the classic conditions for eliciting what universities are best at – gaming poorly conceived systems of audit.

      Just a thought – what is it we’re trying to fix again? I didn’t see any actual evidence referred to in this piece.

      1. Quite. JJ was recently described at a meeting I attended as “a minister in search of a problem”. He clearly sees a sector which has an 86% overall satisfaction rate from its students as (objective!) evidence that same sector is failing in one of its main activities. You can’t have it both ways.

        The real problem with the TEF is that it is of a piece with the neo-liberal approach to higher education, where everything can be measured, where employability is more important that inspiration, and where the bottom line is the ultimate master.

  2. First of all, i apologise for the inevitable superficiality of my response. i am sure nobody wants to read an essay. While i agree with the general point that involving students in driving up not only teaching quality (here intended as the delivery of knowledge transmission, the design of the curriculum in relation to the content and the improvement of how we assess and support student to learn) is indeed a valuable and much needed change, i do not think the author’s defense of the TEF is strong enough. Let me look at each point in turn.
    POINT 1 – the metrics. Although this and previous governments have been passionate (almost blindly so) to the power of metrics, metrics tend to focus the mind in achieving the target and forget about the quality of the process. Metrics can be twisted and turned and they do not necessarily reflect the quality of the process which led to the results. To have a single metric for something as complex as teaching would be methodologically disastrous if not truly impossible. I think we need to be aware that metrics, which are purported to show transparency, can actually be rather opaque and create a veil of illusion. So they needed but as part of a more complex set of data.
    POINT 2 – WE ARE ALREADY GOOD AT TEACHING – I have to agree with the author on some of the points made here but paradoxically we fall prey of the same metrics problem. However, while in point 1 the author believes that metrics can shed light, in point 2 the very same metrics which show how good universities are at teaching are dismissed. This internal inconsistency is at the heart of the metrics dilemma. Clearly, if we want to use metrics, we need to choose good criteria for what we understand to be good or excellent teaching. Shame that much research in teaching in schools which has proven what good teaching is like, has been dismissed as ideological. The inability of policymakers to learn will not lead to a good set of criteria.
    POINT 3 – a burgeoning bureaucracy. Bureaucracy will increase as more would be needed to deal with the paperwork (or virtual counterpart of it). More time will be spent providing data which feeds the metrics but not the soul of teaching. Time to develop, innovate and try better ways to teach will be wasted to feed a bureaucracy which i am not entirely sure is objective and independent. It might be worth dusting off Weber on this point. University teaching is priceless because it teaches student to learn about new ideas, inventions and discoveries not because it ticked the boxes. Bureaucracy does not fit well with the entrepreneurial spirit we aim to have. Again there is a conceptual inconsistency here which would be interesting to see how it is resolved.
    However, there is some good coming out of the TEF: it is making us talk about HE, teaching and learning, its relationship with research and much more.

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