Exploring the impact of regulatory change on staff

Fran McKay draws on a study of how the last version of the TEF landed inside universities to suggest that better use could be made of professional staff to make sense of regulation

Fran McKay is an Educational Research Specialist at Nottingham Trent University

OfS’ new “readability” metric, an addition to their brawl against regulatory burden, raises important questions about agency, power, and responsibility in the higher education policy cycle.

If OfS is showing itself to be doing all that it can to be transparent, meaningful, and “light touch”, the onus of breakdowns in communication and inefficiencies will increasingly fall to universities themselves.

And despite a general consensus within institutions that OfS is burdensome, very little work has explored what is happening to and with the translation of regulation in the provinces of universities.

In spring 2019, I spent a few months at a research-intensive institution to explore how an arts faculty was dealing with the new-ish Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) agenda.

I had recruited a cross-section of 17 staff from across disciplines and job families (lecturers, academic managers, and professional services) and essentially wanted to know: who was responsible for meeting which bit of the regulatory submission and what did these “local” staff, who work alongside students, perceive to be changing because of this enhancement agenda.

Though the direct usefulness of my findings was somewhat scuppered by the announcement that subject-level TEF was to be scrapped, several insights would prove helpful for quality and academic and organisational development.

Enhancement pivot

It became clear that the university in question was giving more attention to teaching and student experience than ever before, with an increased focus on identifying and tackling “quality issues”.

The institution had most prominently seen an unprecedented increase in the breadth and depth of professional services staff provision; with an analysis of strategic documentation (including webpages and faculty plans) showing the creation of several new teams to support digital learning, academic excellence, and student life.

The coming of the TEF agenda at this research institution was presented by participants as a strategic, coercive pressure that both encouraged the reinforcement of good practices across departments and extended these to others.

Student relationship reset

The last of these growing occupational groups was an avid point of discussion for participants in focus groups and interviews, who described the relatively new student service provision that offered signposting and procedural guidance to students, from complaints to running student quality committees, from hubs across the institution.

This group, of which six staff participated in the study, were loudest in suggesting that the TEF was a significant shift towards universities as business, further legitimising the “student-customer” persona.

Despite having no access to the TEF submissions from their roles, these frontline staff expressed feeling helplessly part of a transactional arrangement that replaced a “nice learning relationship” between staff and students.

Disenfranchisement from strategic discourse was exacerbated by most being on precarious, fixed-term contracts; with frequent movement to other “hubs” reducing their engagement with regulatory change.

A growing “third space”

Just down the corridor from the student service provision was a group of colleagues whose roles were framed by the expectation that they would coordinate how the faculty met external change.

The faculty, and by extension the academic community, which had formerly relied on organisational or procedural “support”, had shifted to a requirement of “expertise”, ultimately changing what an “admin” looked like on the ground.

This was illustrated by a group of enhancement colleagues who consulted with colleagues using internal data, market research, and their own extensive operational experience, often having spent years in student complaints or quality functions.

In the faculty where the research took place, these individuals were pivotal to completing the TEF submissions and in doing so theoretically had a prestigious role to play in facilitating significant conversations around what “teaching excellence” meant for the faculty. They individually became gatekeepers to the submission, coordinating the language, tone, and focus, choosing which parts of the generic guidance to emphasise and which stakeholders should be heard.

Exacerbating workplace tensions

Though the TEF agenda created a hive of local activity, its potential as a meaningful and sustainable tool for enhancement was severely restricted by structural limitations. Student service colleagues, who had the most direct relationships with students, had no access to policy discussions.

In fact, the wider enhancement agenda seemed to propagate a two-tier “administrative” system that separates “doers” and “thinkers”. This was a significant site of inter-staff conflict considering most staff attend similar departmental meetings and broadly support the same agenda.

But even within this hierarchy, the thinkers – the enhancement-focused staff – suggested that their relative agency to translate policy was pitted against an oppressive “radio-silence” from the “central” administration, leaving them to rely on sector-wide reports and online articles to build narratives and ultimately strategies, as seen in the subject-level TEF, for the faculty’s departments.

Conversations in exclusive “enhancement” networks that these staff were invited to join provided little opportunity to critically discuss policy and a “tick-box culture” was soon established. This ad-hoc, highly procedural strategic planning made it difficult to engage in conversations with the wider academic community, meaning that professional services colleagues were often required to demand compliance rather than lead consultation.

This had implications, as when asked, all participants struggled to define what educational excellence looked like in their faculty, despite the narratives having been written, it was just not an area many had been made privy to.

The tensions in this space were a little more complex than administrator versus academic but consolidated the lack of trust most colleagues had in the institution, with focus group data particularly highlighting that university leadership were perceived to be collaborators, quick to jump unquestioningly on OfS command.

Excellence requires discursive space and critical leadership

For me, the time spent in the institution, and others since, has stressed the importance of system thinking, criticality, and change management principles in the HE policy process, and I believe professional services remain underused in this area.

A large part of my final paper looked at professional services developing opinion and capacity, as participants swapped complacency and under-confidence for curiosity and courage, increasingly interested in the part that they may be playing in the TEF exercise.

Services staff described feeling more empowered now that they understood the bigger picture and significantly, enhancement colleagues suggested that the opportunity to speak to a cross-section of staff helped them to “make meaning” of this policy.

Expanding the administrative or support functions is but the first step in becoming a student-centred sector, and for universities to ensure not just adherence to, but meaningful ownership of, increasing regulatory policies then serious exploration and recognition is required of this growing workforce.

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